All photos and GIFs by Justin Bolois, unless otherwise noted.
“The sea was angry my friends, like an old man sending soup back to a deli,” said a dramatic George Costanza in one of Seinfeld’s most classic episodes, “The Marine Biologist.” That’s the line that always gets me. Following George’s heroic effort to save a beached whale and cover up the lie that he is, in fact, not a Marine Biologist, the gang meets at their usual deli spot to recap the day. At the height of his storytelling, before revealing the golf ball clasped in his palm that he had plucked from the suffocating whale’s blowhole, George tosses an out-of-left-field deli metaphor that leaves Jerry and Elaine furrowing their brows.
Of course, the soup line wasn’t the first, or last, time that food was used as a comedic device in the ’90s sitcom. One episode follows George’s quest to pull off the male trifecta: the simultaneous combination of sex, television, and hot pastrami on rye. In another, the black and white cookie inspires Jerry to wax poetic about racial harmony. That some of Seinfeld’s most defining moments are shaped or driven by deli foods says a lot about its role in Jewish identity. Delis have their own quirks, personalities, and narrative arcs that separate one from the other. Look into a deli and you’ll see the purest scene of Jewish life—mothers pestering their children, old people tonguing whitefish, proprietors regaling customers with tales and jokes, families sharing large platters of smoked fish and meats.
Delis have their own quirks, personalities, and narrative arcs that separate one from the other.
Here’s the twist, though. Seinfeld was set in New York City, but it was the delis of Los Angeles that were catering to the cast as they filmed in Hollywood. It’s indisputable that NYC formed the blueprint for the deli as we know it today. Immigrants of Ashkenazy heritage flooded into the Lower East Side, preserving their culture in the over-packed tenements. As David Sax says in his book Save the Deli, “New York provided the perfect incubator for the Jewish delicatessen to blossom into a vibrant symbol of Ashkenazi cookery…Suddenly the foods of a people dispersed for nearly two thousand years came together in one corner of Manhattan.”
In the same book, however, he also made the case for L.A. having the most thriving deli culture in America. Whether that claim holds up is debatable. NYC gets knocked for having delis that are tourist attractions, places that are distanced from the community that built them, and that lack semitic vitality. But L.A. doesn’t have the quality fish that New York has. Same goes with the bagels. And apparently Weegee had some harsh things to say about LA’s blintzes.
Nevertheless, L.A.’s sprawling geography, its ties to the entertainment industry, and its West Coast Casual motto have contributed to a different vision of what a deli should be. Just ask the deli proprietors in L.A., and they’ll be sure to give you an earful about how they do things differently. Norm Langer of Langer’s Deli put it plain and simple when I asked him what separates the cities. He grabbed a cream soda and began to role-play: “Here it is. You’ll like it. That’s the New York way. New York has a matter-of-fact practice that just doesn’t fly here.” Sometimes, going into Katz’s—where you take a ticket, nudge your way past people, and hope that the line that you’re in is actually a line—feels like rushing into a subway car. That’s the experience, and there’s an element of excitement to it, some might say. Sure, but in L.A., eating at a deli never feels like a hassle or a race to the finish line.
L.A.’s sprawling geography, its ties to the entertainment industry, and its West Coast Casual motto have contributed to a different vision of what a deli should be.
On either coast, delis face similar, mounting challenges to stay afloat. The loss of concentrated Jewish areas. Large supermarket chains changing consumer habits. Regimented diets and a new awareness of health (“ever meet a vay-gun?” asked one deli proprietor). The rise in food prices has made it so that a pastrami sandwich can reach the $16 range. Not only does this drive some customers away, but it turns lunch into a luxury rather than a daily routine. In recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of new-age delis that have major sway with younger audiences—places like Wise Sons in San Francisco and Mile End in Brooklyn. With sleek, modernized versions of deli classics, they pose a threat to the same institutions they honor.
Jews toil and persevere, though. That’s what you can gather from Old Testament verses. So, in light of what’s been said, here is a survey of some of L.A.’s unflappable establishments that refuse to go-away, along with a glossary of old-school deli items for the shiksas who haven’t a clue. There’s nothing “nouveau” about any of these spots. They’re not advertising their farms, or where they source their pickles from. These ideas aren’t inherently bad, by any means (this is coming from someone who lived in the Bay Area for five years). But if you’re Langer’s, and you’re dishing out the best cured meat in the country, buzzwords take a back seat. Sometimes, the most important thing is the taste you have in your mouth, rather than knowing where your chicken came from.
Next page: The delis you need to know…