Langer’s Sandwich #19: Pastrami and Swiss Cheese with Coleslaw and Russian Dressing.
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)
The long, slow decline of the Jewish deli has been mourned and mourned for many years.
In the early 1930s, there were more than 1,500 kosher and many more non-kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs, according to city records.
In recent years, the estimate has dropped to 150 across North America.
That’s why it’s cause for celebration that Langer’s Deli, the venerable pastrami emporium on 7th and Alvarado near MacArthur Park, celebrated another landmark anniversary this weekend. The restaurant, which opened with space for 12 customers in June 1947, is now 75 years old.
Langer’s is, of course, a Los Angeles institution.
In 1991, Jonathan Gold wrote in The Times: “The fact is unavoidable: Langer’s probably serves the best pastrami sandwich in America.”
In 2002, Nora Ephron went further, declaring unequivocally in the New Yorker that Langer’s made the best hot pastrami sandwich in the world. She described it as “soft but crunchy, soft but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but spicy.”
And, if I may be so bold, my recent lunch of matzo ball soup and hot rye pastrami with sauerkraut confirmed – for
my satisfaction, anyway – that those ratings are still valid.
Of course, if you don’t want pastrami, there are alternatives. You can have the corned beef (Mimi Sheraton called it “excellent” in a 42-year-old review that still hangs, disappearing now, in the restaurant window). Or blintzes, kasha varnishes, latkes, a bowl of borscht or a knish with sauce. For dessert, noodle kugel. I think you can also order the hamburger or even – don’t tell the ancestors, please – a ham and cheese sandwich. But that would be foolish.
Ephron was sarcastic about the decor. “It’s decorated, although ‘decorated’ is probably not the word that applies, on tufted brown vinyl,” she wrote. That was 20 years ago, and that’s more or less how it still looks today.
She’s noticed that Langer always seems to be barely taking it. This is also still true.
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The sufferings of Jewish delis over the years have been many, the challenges monumental: there is the passing of the shtetl generation and their children. The assimilation of their grandchildren. The dispersion of the Jewish population from the cities to the suburbs (and, in Langer’s case, from Westlake-MacArthur Park to the San Fernando Valley and Westside).
Rising rents. The escalating costs of ingredients. The vanity of cardiologists everywhere, with all the fat, carbs and salt.
More recently, the COVID shutdowns. And now, a new burst of inflation.
The price of a pastrami sandwich at Langer’s has recently risen to $22, a figure that even its owner, Norm Langer, admits is
“A pound of beef, two slices of rye bread, and a pickle worth $22?” he asks. “I don’t know. But I have to make ends meet.”
When the restaurant opened, a pastrami sandwich cost about 35 cents. When the Times mentioned the deli in 1973, the price went up to $1.75. In 2002, it was $8.50.
Langer is 77 years old. He says he has no plans to retire. “I get up in the morning, I have to go somewhere,” he says. “Everyone needs a place to go.”
The restaurant was opened by his father, Al Langer, of Newark, NJ, who started in delis years earlier, when his mother sent him to work to raise money to help pay for his $35 bar mitzvah. In 1947, Al was living in Los Angeles, he recently got out of service and saved $500. He borrowed a few thousand more.
At that time, the Westlake-MacArthur Park neighborhood had a large middle-class Jewish population. At one point the restaurant had so much business that it was open nights until 3am Now it closes at 4pm
In the 1980s, The Times wrote endless stories about the problems the deli faced because of the neighborhood’s change, including a histrionic article about MacArthur Park titled “Winos, Dopers, Crime Overrun City Landmark.” But Langer held on.
The restaurant gained a much-needed boost in 1993 when the Metro Red Line opened, with a subway station just a block and a half away. Crowds poured in from downtown.
“I saw 500 people lining up to get into Langer’s and I told Norm, ‘It was worth spending $1.2 billion to keep it in business,’” said then-county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a regular.
In LA today, delis that still exist include Canter’s, which opened in 1931 in Boyle Heights and only later moved to its Fairfax location. Also Art’s Deli, Nate ‘n Al’s and Wexler’s. There’s Brent’s Deli. To name just a few.
But they keep closing. Izzie’s in Santa Monica closed its doors in May. Greenblatt’s in West Hollywood closed in 2021 after 95 years.
New delis have opened, in some cases with modern, sustainable or health-conscious twists on classic cuisine. Less ragged, less irascible, they’re betting that deli food can be gentrified and rejuvenated.
But pastrami, let’s face it, is an acquired taste. As well as creamy herring, chicken liver, tongue, white fish salad and other typical dishes of the country. The bagel may be firmly entrenched in the American gastronomic pantheon, but traditional Ashkenazi food, the kind that flourished in the years after the great Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, is unquestionably under threat.
And with it a tangible link to the culinary past. A connection with the ancestors. A piece of collective culture.
The good news is that reports of their extinction have so far proved premature, as Langer demonstrates. So instead of ripping my clothes off, I’m going to make the most of it while I can (and I hope my heart can take it).
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.