Today's debate was fierce among the four avowed food-lovers sitting at a patio table at Meizhou Dong Po, the amazing Chinese restaurant in the Century City Westfield Mall. The subject was.... pastrami. Entrepreneur Gary Winnick told us about the now-defunct Pastrami King in Manhattan, which he thought served the best he ever tasted, and how he now has his New York driver stop at Pastrami Queen on the way to the plane at JFK airport to pick up a few snacks. (He was once barred from boarding his plane because the aroma from the bag was too strong, but that's another story.) Kolikof Caviar's Jim Miller said that he had a sensational pastrami sandwich just this week from Greenblatt's on Sunset Blvd. My brother Stan, recently back in L.A. from an extended stand in France, merely salivated as he listened. Then I ended the discussion with one word...Langer's.
Winnick sighed as recounted how he used to stop there after a baseball game, when they were still open at night, greeting the older man who owned it. I told the assemblage about how, to celebrate its 65th anniversary last year, LANGER'S DELI (704 S. Alvarado St, 213-483-8050) offered free Number 19 sandwiches, its most popular, to everyone who came to the restaurant. The police had to close off the avenue in front of the eatery to accommodate the crowds, and Norm Langer told me that they served almost 8,000 sandwiches in two days. I told my brother about the treat which awaited him next week, when we drive down Wilshire Blvd. to Alvarado, made a right turn and park near the restaurant (although they have a lot in the area.) We will take seats at the counter and order a Number 19, which is pastrami on corn rye, with Swiss cheese and cole slaw, dribbled with a river of Russian-style dressing ($15.20). We will watch as a muscular guy holding a long fork hefts a hunk of hot beef redolent with spices, garlic and pepper from the custom-made steamer, erupting white bursts of steam. He will lay the meat on the carving counter and I will note to Stan that it has the slightest bit of fat left untrimmed around the salty-sweet edge of the beef. The counter man then will carefully slice it against the grain onto two slices of corn rye from Fred's, on Robertson. The bread will have just been thickly sliced and heated to 300 degrees in the brick oven until warm and crispy on the cornmeal-coated outside, chewy and slightly sour inside. (If the bread in not used in thirty minutes, it is dead, discarded.) About a half-pound of the dark reddish, juicy spicy meat will be piled high atop the bread. Then he will add the Swiss cheese and the cole slaw, the dressing, and grandly cut it in half, plate it on a warm plate and proudly hand it to the waitress to bring to the impatient two of us sitting at the counter watching the whole process. I will gingerly remove the warm top slice of bread and spread a thin layer of brown mustard (never the yellow ball park variety and, God forbid, never Dijon) on top of the meat, snatching tastes of the crusty pieces which have fallen onto the plate in the process. I will take a bite of the half-sour pickle, brined from local cucumbers by a man named Murray Berger who has been supplying them for over 40 years. The waitress then will bring us cans of Dr. Brown's Celery Tonic and, before I take the first sandwich bite, pop the top and and pour it down the side of the glass full of ice. Then I will set my shoulders, close my eyes, grab the oversized half of sandwich in my eager fingers and bite down into...heaven on earth, a Langer's pastrami sandwich! (Yes, now I know there is a God, for he created the baked potato and Langer's pastrami.)
After finishing half and getting a doggie bag for the other half, we will search out Norm Langer, the proprietor and an old friend. He has introduced me to his daughter, a beautiful young girl named Trisha who is busy behind the counter bagging take-out orders. I recently asked Norm, who inherited the place when his father, Al, died at the age of 94 a week after their 60th anniversary, if he would ever contemplate opening another branch, and he laughingly shook his head in the negative and said, "I'm 68 years old and happy with the business we have; why would I take on any more action?" I asked if he had changed anything after his dad died and he said the menu is just about the same, although he did add salmon to the dinner selections. "In 66 years we have served over 4 million pounds of the brined, seasoned beef....and I feel we have another 66 years to get things right." At which point I gently admonished him that he had things pretty right already, while I placed a large order of things to take home...some corned beef, some brisket, some chopped liver, and a whole sliced rye bread. Emergencies happen, you know.
I have eaten pastrami all over the world, even in Romania,
where supposedly it was created before
being brought to America by Eastern European Jews in
the late 19th century. Showing off my arcane knowledge
to Norm, I mentioned Irish corned beef (usually tough)
and the product I once found in London called salt beef,
especially as prepared by two Jewish bagel shops on
Brick Lane. In Montreal, there's smoked meat as served
at Schwartz's, identical to pastrami although the spices
are different. The famous film scene in Katz's Deli in
New York, where Meg Ryan 'performs her orgasm,' and
then Estelle Reiner says, "I'll have what she's having." It
was a pastrami sandwich, of course.
I recently inquired of Norm if anything had changed since I last wrote about the making of his pastrami many years ago, and he said it was exactly the same. "We have been getting our corned beef and pastrami cured and smoked from the same local supplier in Burbank for some 40+ years. The secret is what we do with it after we get it...the pastrami comes in two-to-three pound chunks which are then steamed in our custom-designed tank for at least two-and-a-half to three hours, bringing it to the perfect point of tenderness. Our version is less spicy and smoked lighter than the heavier New York style, which wouldn't go here." He went on to explain that, at the basic level, corned beef and brisket (with pastrami, my holy trinity, if you will), are the same, all derived from the brisket of beef, a relatively tough and fatty cut that needs long, slow cooking to bring out its best flavors and textures. The differences lie in the various cooking and curing procedures that are brought into play. Pastrami is dry-cured and smoked, and then steamed before serving. Corned beef is cured in brine and boiled for several hours. Brisket is neither cured or smoked, it is simply braised plain (for the typical deli sandwich), or in a sauce or stock for more elaborate presentation.We talked about the difference in hand-and-machine slicing, the latter's rapidly-spinning blade violently tearing at the meat and cutting through fibers in the way to producing thin slices, while the hand-cut gently conforms to the natural grain of the meat, affecting the buttery texture and allowing irregular, juicier, more robust toothsome flavor.
So Langer's lives on, serving what many deli aficionados
on both coasts consider the best pastrami sandwich in
America. Just west of downtown, in a neighborhood
more shabby than chic, on a street corner in a heavily
Latino area, adjacent to a bourgeoning Koreatown, it
draws an eclectic and loyal clientele from all over the
world. The Metro subway station is a half-block away,
and every weekday hundreds of people from
further downtown....lawyers and judges, tourists and food-lovers, take the subway here and walk over to stuff their faces with that pastrami, corned beef, tongue, brisket, matzo brei, chicken in the pot (with matzo balls, kreplach, noodles and vegetables), salami-and-eggs pancake style, even a chili size and a chocolate phosphate if that is your desire. (They have Curb service, but then you would not get to smell the aroma of the warm meat as you walk in the door, enough to kill a vegetarian or drive them into a pastrami frenzy.)
As I leave Langer's, I always immediately regret that I have not thought to take home a few pounds of pastrami for 'an emergency.' But then I'll always have an excuse to go back soon to stock up.
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