The ongoing heated debate between the food lovers of New York and Los Angeles, as far as I can tell, mostly involves a bunch of New Yorkers moving to L.A. and complaining that we don't have adequate bagels, pizza or even sushi. They don't think we have good Italian delis, or even decent Jewish delis. That last claim, though, was given a thorough smacking (like Manu Ginobilli to a bat) by The LA Times last month, giving credence to something we've all been saying for quite some time: that Langer's Deli makes the best pastrami sandwich in the world. The real question, though, as has been passionately argued multiple times on Chowhound, is which particular Langer's pastrami sandwich is the best in the world. So is it the #19, their most popular sandwich, which features the classic pastrami on rye, but with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and coleslaw? Or is it, quite simply, a small mound of pastrami, slid between two slices of rye bread and nothing more? With more years than I care to admit since my last visit to Langer's, it is time to put these sandwiches to the test.
Armed only with a bottle of Dr. Brown's Cel Rey, a regular pickle on one plate and half sour on the other (note: in a small side competition, the half sour pickle thoroughly defeated the other), the battle began. The plain pastrami sandwich (which some purists say is allowed only to be adorned with the faintest dab of mustard) is a love song to the two specific things that put Langer's on the map in the first place. It is perfectly cooked pastrami, sliced to perfection, encased within rye (tender, delicate crumb; a crackling crust). On most sandwiches, you would expect that you'd need some kind of additional condiment, if only to add moisture. But that's not the case here. I hate to play favorites, but this sandwich is going to be tough to beat, in any city, under any circumstance, and against any competitor.
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But wait. The #19 has everything the plain pastrami had, and more. How can it not be better if it has more stuff? Well, it isn't better. With apologies for a lack of climax in this competition, the victor was fairly clear after the first bite of each. There is a slightly uncomfortable level of sweetness to the #19, and so many extra flavors being thrown in that nearly all of of the subtlety and nuance of the previous sandwich was lost in a sea of unnecessary dairy. Additionally, all that extra moisture proves to be too much, as the center of the sandwich has no choice but to eventually turn soggy. Think of it this way, if the pastrami and the rye are excellent, then you add in three extra ingredients which are any less so, the overall sandwich rating has to go down. That's just how averages work. The plain pastrami sandwich is like taking pure DXM, rather than bothering with the unnecessary additives of an entire bottle of cough syrup. But will people keep on ordering the #19 anyway? Of course they will. Why wouldn't they? It has more stuff on it.
Langer's Delicatessen, 704 S Alvarado St, L.A., (213) 483-8050.
P.S. Please don't actually take DXM, or drink an entire bottle of cough syrup.