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…
II. The Delis
419 N Fairfax Ave (323-651-2030, cantersdeli.com)
The Fairfax corridor has experienced a complete overhaul in the past 10 years. What you see is less pe’ot, and more snapback caps. Farifax is, after all, now the nucleus of streetwear fashion in L.A., thanks in part to boutiques like The Hundreds, Supreme, Freshjive, and Hall of Fame. Odd Future’s retail store is on the same block, and it’s fairly easy to run into Left Brain or Tyler swerving their way around pedestrians. Vinny Dotolo’s and Jon Shook’s groundbreaking Animal made its way to the same block too, and it is consistently rated one of the best meat-centric restaurants in the city. But in the center of all this change—while very much resisting it—is Canter’s Delicatessen.
Originally opened in Boyle Heights in 1931, Canter’s moved into its current, palm-tree studded location in the old Esquire Theatre in 1953. Canter’s is one of LA’s oldest and largest delis (it purportedly serves 6,000 gallons of chicken soup per month and 6.5 tons of corned beef), but it also lives up to its reputation for being one of the liveliest.
This may be for a couple of reasons. One is that it was the first deli in Los Angeles to have service available 24 hours (according to co-owner Terry Bloomgarden, this was cheaper for insurance purposes). Secondly, it offers entertainment in the form of the Kibitz Room, a dark-lit, funky lounge adjacent to the restaurant and open until 2am with nightly live music and a scene of locals. The Kibitz Room has been a launchpad for bands over the years. Saul Hudson, known now as Slash, is friends with co-owner Marc Canter, and it was here that Guns N’ Roses got their start, not to mention other acts like the Wallflowers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Canter’s bakery is something to be admired, too. It occupies the space that formerly used to be the marquee of the Esquire Theatre, and its glass displays are nothing short of breath-taking. You’ll find all types of rugelach, danishes, race-track cakes, and cookies, and almost all are baked in-house. Often, I’ll bring an assortment of pastries into the Kibitz Room while listening to some ’90s era Butt Rock. Canter’s is, of course, a Jewish deli. But for many people—and especially young night owls—it’s a meeting place to reminisce about a night of partying, a meeting place that just so happens to serve Jewish deli food.
Side Note: From 2008 to 2010, Canter’s had a stand in Dodger Stadium where it debuted its Kosher Hot Dog.
704 S Alvarado St, Westlake (213-483-8050, langersdeli.com)
L.A. is a place where people avoid heavy traffic at all costs. But for Langer’s, the addition of the Metro Red Line in 1993 was the buoy that saved this 63-year-old, James Beard award-winning, family-operated restaurant. Established in 1947 and now run by the affable Norm Langer, the deli sits on the corner of 7th and Alvarado in a dicey part of town called MacArthur Park. The neighborhood’s reputation is still the reason why Langer’s closes it’s doors at 4pm, before the sun sets. On street corners you’ll find sliced mango and cucumber stands; the sounds of push-cart bells are often drowned out by patrol car sirens. Two doors from Langer’s is also the storefront where I acquired my first fake ID (thanks guys, that lasted for one solid month!). But after a clean-up and police intervention, crime is under control, and the restaurant is still bustling thanks in large part to a metro stop that dumps people off a block away.
At no other moment am I prouder to be a member of the tribe than when I’m biting into the pastrami sandwich at Langer’s.
Let it be known that Langer’s is the Kingdom Come of pastrami, certainly on the West Coast, arguably the country. New Yorkers will obviously bristle at this claim. But it should be said that one of your own, Nora Ephron, began her piece in the New Yorker in 2002 as follows: “The hot pastrami sandwich served at Langer’s in downtown Los Angeles is the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world.” There’s no mincing of words here. Nobel prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold has publicly stated that Langer’s would he his choice to cater his own funeral. It may seem meshugah, but pastrami makes headlines.
Langer’s has perfected the art of quality control. This is partially because Norm and his daughter still steer the ship (you’ll even see them carving behind the counter), and also because they treat their employees well (it’s a unionized deli!). You won’t find deli classics like liverwurst, knockwurst, gefilte, or kreplauch. But the draw here is what’s referred to familiarly as the #19: A pastrami on rye with coleslaw, swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. At no other moment am I prouder to be a member of the tribe than when I’m biting into this sandwich. It’s the closest a Jew can come to speaking in tongues. For starters, Langer’s pays extra for the premium cuts of the navel, prudently choosing to eschew the brisket that most other delis use. The pastrami is steamed longer, for six hours, which breaks down the tissues and collagen until it turns into a supple thing of beauty. It is eventually hand-carved (note: normally, a whirring meat slicer draws out the moisture), producing a rosy hued, velvety meat outlined by a peppery, Romanian-spiced crust. The deal-breaker that sets Langer’s apart from Katz’s? Its bread: the double-baked, caraway-scented rye loaf that is freshly sliced for each sandwich.
12224 Ventura Blvd, Studio City (818-762-1221, artsdeli.com)
Art’s Deli, whose motto states, “Where every sandwich is a work of Art,” is located in the San Fernando Valley—’the other side of the hill,’ as most people call it. If there’s one thing Angelenos can agree on, it’s that The Valley is the pariah of Los Angeles—a suburban sprawl much maligned, teased, and dismissed as being a legitimate part of the county (we pay taxes to the L.A. district people, get a life). And while The Valley does receive a lot of unwarranted flak, there is some truth to the criticism. It’s hot as hell, often 10 degrees warmer than surrounding areas. Except for a few strongholds like Twain’s, restaurants close early. We have our own stereotype, our own lingo (“Tha Oaks,” “fryer,” “Stud City”). It’s not as glamorous as Hollywood, nor as metropolitan as downtown. BUT, it is one of the largest Jewish-populated areas in Los Angeles. If you are a Jewish youth growing up in this area, two things are certain: You purchase your bar-mitzvah suit from Rudnick’s in Encino, and you cater your parties, shivas, and other family functions from Art’s, or Brent’s if you’re further west.
Art’s has a long history with the entertainment industry, by virtue of its location close to many of the major studios. Within a 10-mile radius you have CBS Radford, Universal, Warner Brothers, NBC, and Disney. Execs and writers visited so often that dining habits could be used as a sort of litmus test for how the industry fared at any one point in time. According to Art’s obituary, “During a writers’ strike in 1988, entertainment executives would quiz Ginsburg about how much food the out-of-work scribes had ordered—a sign, perhaps, of how close they were to a deal.”
The large, macro shots of deli meats and smoked fish that adorn the walls of Art’s oddly feel right at home. It’s campy, but then again, this is a deli that caters to the movie business. Some element of exaggeration should be expected. At Art’s, they’re serious about their meats. That, or it just confirms George Costanza’s hunch all along.
8017 W Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood (323-656-0606, greenblattsdeli.com)
When you’re in the competitive world of delis, it’s in your best interest to have an edge, a niche that separates you from the rest of the pack. For Greenblatt’s, that niche derives from an unexpected symbol of class not normally associated with the vinyl-boothed kitsch of delis: vino. After Prohibition ended in 1933, Greenblatt’s became the first delicatessen to sell fine wine, and in doing so pushed the boundaries of how a traditional delicatessen can operate. Located next door to the Laugh Factory on the Sunset Strip, Greenblatt’s feels like a hybrid deli-tavern. It’s not nearly as boisterous as a place as Canter’s, and you wonder if this has to do with the selection of boutique wines to the left of the deli counter. It gives the place a unique sense of calm. Twenty-eight wines are available from their cruvinet, ready to be paired with charcuterie or artisanal cheeses. Or, heck, even a pastrami sandwich.
Originally opened in 1926 by Herman Greenblatt, the place was purchased by the Kavin Family in 1940 and has been under their ownership ever since. Homemade latkes and roast beef are the star dishes here. When I sat in owner Jeff Kavin’s basement office, with empty or partially full wine bottles splayed across his desk, he filled me in on some deli lore. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last meal was a Hershey’s Bar—one purchased from Greenblatt’s, of course. And Richard Lewis purportedly insists that he will end his life if Greenblatt’s stops making noodle kugel. Oy.
Nate n’ Al Delicatessen
414 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills (310-274-0101, natenal.com)
Tourists hankering for some L.A. glamour should sidestep the TMZ Bus Tours in Hollywood and head to Nate ‘n Al, the 68-year-old delicatessen located in the heart of 90210, where the air is heavy with the scent of cologne and wealth. If you want to people-watch, this is the place for you. Here, you’ll catch a glimpse of Jewish affluence. Comedy legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner order weekly take-out. Suspender-rockin’ Larry King eats breakfast here every morning. The women don’t dress in shmatas; their necks are adorned with glistening pearls. But delis really are a testament to parity. Even the richest Jews are eating kishka and tongue sandwiches, and there’s nothing sexy about that, plain and simple. There aren’t really such things as add-ons to make a meal more decadent in the way that you can add foie gras in French cuisine, or truffles in Italian.
Suspender-rockin’ Larry King eats breakfast here every morning.
So while it shares a strip on Beverly Boulevard with designer labels and designer cheese shops, Nate ‘n Al doesn’t feel like an opulent delicatessen. It’s homey, with its brown booths, brown carpet, and faux wood. And maybe this is the reason why it became a Hollywood hangout, a place where hundreds of millions of dollars have been negotiated at tables. It’s a small asylum of comfort amid grand luxury on every corner. It worked for people like Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, and even the big man Kareem Abdul Jabbar. New Yorker Nora Ephron rhapsodized about the hot dogs, letting the world know that if she had to choose her last meal, it would be a frankfurter from Nate’s. But what she may have overlooked was the matzah ball soup, famously un-decadent and uncomplicated. It feels like mom’s.
Pico Kosher Deli
8826 W Pico Blvd (310-273-9381, pkdla.com)
Pico Kosher Deli (PKD) is one of Los Angeles’ first Kosher delis, nestled in an area that still has a heavy Orthodox influence. Last time I visited on a Sunday night, I strolled by the B’nai David-Judea Congregation which emanated the low chants and barely-audible murmurs of prayer. The Pico Robertson area holds a special place in L.A.’s Orthodox community, but it was also holy ground for food-critic Jonathan Gold, who previously had lived above a kosher butcher shop near Robertson. It was in this relatively overlooked area that Gold cut his teeth, and a great cultural observer was born. From a 1998 article, he wrote the following, “Pico, in a certain sense, was where I learned to eat… For a while, in my early 20s, I had only one clearly articulated ambition: to eat at least once at every restaurant on Pico Blvd…It seemed a reasonable enough alternative to graduate school.”
It was in this relatively overlooked area that Jonathan Gold cut his teeth, and a great cultural observer was born.
PKD’s neighbor is a new-ish restaurant by the name of Mexikosher, which serves things like duck carnitas, and has a wily Rabbi running the cash register. But PKD keeps it strictly old-school. Founded in 1968, and now run by the Hecht Family, PKD is the standout Kosher deli of L.A. What does this mean? Dietary laws prohibit the simultaneous consumption of dairy and meat. PKD is a meat-oriented restaurant, which means that there are no dairy products on its premises. So items like herring with cream, blintzes, and cream cheese are visibly absent. PKD closes early Fridays and entirely Saturdays to observe the Sabbath (but they do have an online shabbos ordering option!). For me, the noodle kugels are the stand-out items here.
Although not featured, the following delis must be acknowledged when talking about deli culture in Los Angeles:
Factor’s, 9420 W Pico Blvd, West Los Angeles (310) 278-9175, factorsdeli.com) [The tuna on challah and corned beef are a must.]
Brent’s, 19565 Parthenia St, Chatsworth (818-886-5679, brentsdeli.com) [Porn isn’t the only thing Chatsworth is known for.]
Billy’s, 216 N Orange St, Glendale (818-246-1689, billysdeli.com) [Labneh is not the only thing you can get in Glendale, L.A.’s de facto Little Armenia.]
Labels Table, 9226 W Pico Blvd, West Los Angeles (310-276-0388, labelstabledeli.com)
Junior’s, CLOSED, R.I.P. [If you couldn’t stomach a Hickory Burger at the Apple Pan, Junior’s was your next best bet.]
Next page: Vital intel for navigating a delicatessen menu…
III. The Food
Pastrami vs. Corned Beef
“I find the pastrami to the be most sensual of all the salted, cured meats.” – George Costanza
These two staple deli meats look more or less similar, and oftentimes are prepared using the same cut of meat. But it is a secondary step in the cooking process that elevates one from the other.
Corned beef is usually brisket that is cured in a brine and marinated in other spices such as salt, bay leaves, garlic, cloves, coriander seeds, peppercorns, and mustard seeds. (FYI: Brisket comes from the breast of a cow and can be sold in two parts—the leaner flat cut, or the fattier point cut.) Put simply, corned beef is essentially pickled beef, and is distinctly saltier than pastrami, but also slightly sweeter. Similar to how confit tomatoes or duck is a method of preserving a food in its own juices, curing was another way to extend the shelf-life of beef. Once cured, the brisket is slowly steamed to tenderize the meat.
Pastrami—the definitive benchmark for rating the quality of a delicatessen—is corned beef that is additionally smoked after being cured. Pastrami can also be cooked using the deliciously fatty navel, or the leaner round. Romanian in origin, pastrami loaves are covered in a dry spice rub, including black pepper, which gives them the distinct crust that is absent on corned beef. For decades, Katz’s and Langer’s have been the pastrami titans on their respective coasts. Both places hand-carve their pastrami, which means their slices are thicker and more moist, and both pastramis are fattier than their competition (fat=flavor). When it’s cooked the right way, chewing pastrami should never be a task; it has that unique ability to melt in your mouth.
Gold Standard: Langer’s
Knish vs. Blintz
Knishes are flaky, savory pastries, baked or fried, often filled with either potato, ground beef, or chicken livers. Knishes are not considered a meal, but rather something you nosh on. Traditionalists believe that a knish should be baked, with either potato and chopped onions, or kasha. A knish has all the qualities that Eastern Europeans like: carbs, butter, and meat—it’s something stodgy and filling to get you through harsh, cold winters. Knishes became popular as small treats that were offered by vendors using pushcarts in NYC in the late 1800s, a precursor to the loncheros that now populate NYC and Los Angeles. I like to think of them as Jewish street food, a variant on the continuum of dumplings that spans across cultures: Samosas (India), empanadas (Argentina), bao (China). The knish is food for the common man, hearty and portable.
The knish is food for the common man, hearty and portable.
Blintzes are Jewish crepes, light and tender, stuffed with farmers cheese and pan-friend until golden brown. Blintzes run the gamut in size, density, and sweetness. The name derives from the Russian word for crepe, blini. Unlike knishes, blintzes lean more toward the dessert category and are often served with sour cream, strawberries, and/or blueberries. They are especially prominent during Shavuot, which translates to “feast of weeks” and celebrates the new bounty from spring harvest, including Bikkurim (“first fruits”).
Gold Standard Blintz: Brent’s
Kasha vs. Kishka
Kasha, which translates to “porridge,” is sort of a catchall phrase for crushed grains (millet, rye, oats) that were consumed thousands of years ago. In Jewish tradition, kasha most often refers to buckwheat groats—small, brownish pellets that are used as fillings in knishes and are paired with bow-tie pasta (varnishkes). The flavor is faintly nutty and has an indescribable, old-world familiarity to it, as if Jews were genetically wired to like this stuff. Think of it as Jewish Soul Food.
Kishka is stuffed derma. That’s what I was always told, anyway, and I shrugged it off because I didn’t know what the hell derma was. Kishka is beef-intestine casing, or “skin of the gut.” It is most easily understood as a variety of sausage, stuffed with mirepoix, hot paprika, garlic, matzo meal, kasha, and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat, and the key flavoring agent in Jewish cooking). You’ll also see kishka accompanied with a gravy, and it’s popularly featured in another home-style dish called cholent, a traditional long-simmering, hearty Sabbath stew. Kishka is also celebrated in song, for those that are curious.
Gold Standard Kishka: Nate ‘n Al
Egg Cream vs. Phosphate
When I think of egg cream and phosphate, a Norman Rockwell aesthetic comes to mind. These are two drinks quaint in their simplicity, relics of a bygone, soda-jerk era. First off, both of these names are misleading. There is neither egg nor cream in an egg cream. What you have is seltzer water, chocolate syrup, and milk. Stirring briskly creates a frothy foam at the top, giving the appearance of something substantial like a milk shake. Its origins are fuzzy, but it is generally agreed upon that the drink first appeared in New York in the late 1800s or early 1900s. One possible theory argues that eggs were originally used in the drink as an emulsifying agent to bond the syrup and cream. During the Great Depression, when the price of dairy and eggs became too costly, it was found that milk and carbonated water could be a poor man’s substitute. Phosphate sounds like a complicated, chemical synthesis, but it too is also unremarkable. In most Jewish delis, it is merely chocolate syrup and seltzer.
Herring and cream vs. White fish vs. Gefilte
There used to be a more pronounced separation that categorized Jewish cuisine. Appetizing shops, like the famed Russ and Daughters in NYC, would sell smoked and cured fish, cream cheeses and other small treats, while delis supposedly focused on meat. In any case, Jews take their fish seriously. Let’s cover some of the basics. First off, whitefish—a species that can be found in the Great Lakes region—is often served as a smoked fish. It is commonly ordered as an alternative to a tuna salad sandwich. While its aroma is a bit more assaulting to the nose than tuna, it makes up for it in depth of flavor. I usually order whitefish salad on pumpernickel bread, which is a bit sweeter and helps to balance the salty qualities.
On to herring, which belongs to the same family as sardines. Since the 15th century, Jews have been the superstars of the herring trade. In the most common dish, herring is pickled and marinated with white wine, vinegar and onions, and slathered with sour cream. If you think that’s off-putting, you can also try…gefilte fish, that jellied, congealed fish patty whose dubious origins inspire as much fear as sitting at the dinner table for a three-hour Passover seder. There’s just something unsightly about seeing gefilte floating in a jar of fish broth. Eating it is a rite of passage. Gefilte is generally made from ground pike or carp, which is mixed with eggs, matzo meal, carrots. Pro tip: Load some horseradish on it, and it goes down rather easily.
Bonus: Pastry Assortment from Canter’s
Canter’s bakery is overwhelmingly diverse in scope, its glass displays filled with geometrical variety and color combination. There are classic black and white cookies, gooey bear claws, monstrous cheese danishes, blintzes, French nut honey cakes, strudels, soft-ball sized hamantaschen, Hungarian cheesecake, and powdered Linzer cookies. But the piece de resistance here are the rugelach, which roughly translates to “little twists.” The buttery, often crescent-shaped, cream cheese-dough pastries can be filled with apple, chocolate, lemon, poppy seed, prune, cheese, or apricot. They are the perfect snack to munch on after a long night of drinking, and make for a great companion when shopping for these guys at nearby sneaker spot Hall of Fame.
Justin Bolois (@JustinBolois) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He previously worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. He dedicates this story to his grandpa, Arnold Grossman, who could always make him laugh with that one matzah ball joke.