As a Los Angeles native reared on pastrami, Micah Wexler has no illusions when it comes to the fragile state of Jewish deli culture: “At many places, you get this stuff that’s very industrialized and made in a factory from god-knows-where, with chicken soups made out of powder. While it may be sad, it’s not surprising to me why those places are closing.”
After stints at fine-dining palaces in Spain, Paris, and NYC—and a particularly life-changing meal at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon—Wexler was ready to get back to his roots. The deli, in need of repair, seemed like the perfect place for Wexler to apply his fine-dining mentality, and devote himself to a genre of food close to his heart.
“We have a real eye towards tradition and old-world style. It’s still an obsession about ingredients and craftsmanship,” says Wexler.
The chef’s pared-down vision of a Jewish deli—a 10-seat counter space housed in a historic 30,000 square foot food hall—has brought integrity back to a lost art, and in the process, has become a centerpiece of the Grand Central Market-Downtown Los Angeles revival.
“We were thinking: what would be the right concept here? We had a very simple idea, which was that we could have a better-class deli here in Los Angeles. The idea behind it was that we would strip down the menu and not do all the Chinese chicken salad and hot dog bullshit, and we would just focus on the basic things you actually want to eat when you go to a deli.”
You won’t find duck pastrami or other highfalutin takes on classics (thankfully). Wexler sticks to the basics: pastrami that is brined and smoked in-house over apple wood, hand-sliced lox, and creamy egg salad served on a kaiser roll with sweet pickles. “We really obsess over the techniques behind every one of those foods.” Micah Wexler isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel—he’s simply trying to reach perfection in the deli genre, and return it to its glory days.
We caught up with the pastrami master and asked him to reminisce on the milestone eating experiences that shaped his vision for his new-wave deli.
My grandparents had this little cabin in Idyllwild, near Palm Springs, that we went to frequently when I was growing up. It was important for my grandfather Jerry to teach his children and grandchildren about being in nature. I was nine or ten years old when I went on my first hike with him, and it was a nine-hour hike. It was pretty intense—I don’t think I was happy the whole time—but there were good parts. We sat on the side of the trail about half way through the hike and and he opened up his backpack and pulled out a pocket knife and something wrapped in a handkerchief; it was a green apple and a block of white cheddar. He told me a slice of green apple with cheddar was his classic trail snack. I remember thinking it was a weird combo at first, but when I ate it, I had this euphoric feeling. They just tasted so perfect together. (Photo: Micah Wexler)
Jewish deli food has always been a big part of my life. It was something I grew up around; it was at all major life cycle events. My dad’s parent’s favorite deli in the city was Langer’s. They lived right by Canter’s Deli, but they refused to eat there—they would only go to Langer’s. They would take me, my sisters, and my cousins maybe once a month or something like that. The pastrami sandwich there is a big part of what informs my taste memory and what we try to do at the deli. I’m still a huge Langer’s fan and I love it. My grandmother trained us to be super traditionalists when eating that kind of stuff; like, you know, you can only have pastrami and corned beef on rye bread with mustard. Never mayonnaise. (Photo: Langer’s Deli)
My maternal grandmother, Emily, was a classic Ashkenazi Jewish cook. My favorite thing that she always made for the holidays was chicken fricassee. It’s essentially meatballs and various parts of the chicken—wings, necks, gizzards, hearts—stewed for hours with onions and garlic in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. The best part was what she referred to as the pupiks and gorgels, which I later learned was the gizzards and necks. My grandma started to get Alzheimers, and so I began cooking with her more because I wanted to learn her recipes. Chicken fricassee was one of the first dishes I made with her. It took me years to master because it’s a very nuanced dish and there’s a lot of crazy things in it, like frozen lemonade concentrate, and Heinz chili sauce. I remember the first time I made it myself, I tried to make substitutions for the canned and jarred ingredients, and it was nowhere near as good as my grandmother’s. (Photo: Food52)
My mom has always been a great cook and entertainer. One of my strongest memories of her food is when she would make turkey for Thanksgiving or Passover. I remember the smells of roasted turkey and poultry grease wafting into my room, causing me to wake up and hop out of bed. She basted the bird the whole time with rosemary and frozen orange juice. It’s the best. Again, she was using this “weird” frozen ingredient, but something about the frozen juice made the bird sticky and delicious and wonderful. (Photo: Food52)
If you grow up in Los Angeles and attend a Jewish high school, you’re bound to have a bunch of Persian friends. While I was eating a boring chicken or turkey sandwich for lunch, they always had tadig and koobideh kabob. I would go around to all my friends at lunch and say, ‘Hey, let me have a little bit of that stuff.’ They eventually started to invite me to their houses for Shabbat, and their mothers would literally go all out—we’re talking forty different dishes, including ten different kinds of rice. It was incredible. When I would get an invitation to their house for Shabbat, I would be excited for weeks. I used to have an official ranking of whose Persian mother was the best cook (my friend Alex Raminfar’s mom was at the top). (Photo: Facebook/FlamePersianCuisine)
When I was 15 I had my first job in a serious restaurant. It was Vincenti in Brentwood and Gino Angelini was the chef. I revered him. He’s such an exacting cook and has a feel for cooking pasta like no one else does. He put me on the pasta station, and one of the first pastas he taught me to make was spaghetti bottarga. It’s just four ingredients, but it’s deceptively simple; you can fuck it up really easily. I remember the way he tossed the pan and the way his hands moved. I remember how the bottarga—with its intense, grimy ocean funk—would melt into the olive oil. To this day, it’s one of my favorite pastas. (Photo: Vincenti Ristorante)
One summer during college I worked at Mélisse here in Los Angeles. It was the first time I was exposed to serious French food. I remember being on the line and [chef] Josiah [Citrin] asked me if I had ever tasted foie gras. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t. He made me a seared piece of foie with pan d’épices and apricot. I remember looking at the quivering, dripping mass of liver and when I tasted it, it was like I was on another planet. It was one of those eerie, eye-opening experiences. And it’s funny, because you have chefs now that say, ‘Oh yeah, foie gras isn’t that great anyhow, it’s not that important.’ I don’t buy into any of that bullshit. It’s not how expensive an ingredient is that makes it good or bad. And, yes, foie is expensive, but it also happens to be exceedingly delicious, and the taste, texture, and experience that you get from foie really is incomparable. (Photo: Leite’s Culinaria)
When I was 22 years-old, I went to northern Spain to work at a three-star Michelin restaurant called Martín Berasategui. The first day there, I cracked open an egg and thought there was something wrong with it. The yolk was an atomic orange color, and it was incredibly firm and almost custard-like. That’s when I realized there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but there is something wrong with our eggs. I’ve been searching for eggs with that same taste and texture ever since I left Spain a decade ago. (Photo: Flickr)
The first time I was in Paris, when I was 22, I was dying to eat at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. I sat down at the restaurant with my friend (and now business partner) Mike Kassar, and we had something like 15 courses. That meal influenced me more than any other restaurant experience I’ve had—ever. The most memorable dish of the tasting was the frog legs. I learned later how to make them: you lollipop the frog legs, coat them in a garlic, parsley, and butter, and then bread and fry them. What results is a lollipop bite sitting at the end of the bone, and it’s served with a garlic puree and a parsley puree. It’s one of those dishes that’s very simple, and really embodies the overarching Robuchon idea of: there’s three flavors in this—frog legs, parsley, and garlic—but those flavors are presented several times throughout the dish in a way that elevates the ingredients and makes them taste more of themselves. I ended up working for Robchon for two years in New York, and it was life changing. (Photo: Green Avocado)
Lox and pastrami at Wexler’s Deli
What we’re doing at Wexler’s is not really about creativity or trying to put a new spin on deli food, we’re really just trying to reach perfection in the genre of deli. To make the pastrami, we brine the meat in a mixture of water, salt, sugar, and spices for seven to eight days. When we pull it out, we coat it with a spice mixture and let it dry for for a day, and then we smoke it for three hours over apple wood. After it’s smoked, we slow cook it for about ten hours until it reaches the point where the slice has texture and holds together, but it’s very tender and moist and kind of melting when you eat it. For the lox, we dry cure the filet of salmon, then put a really light smoke on it for about 45 minutes to an hour so there’s just a subtle back note of smoke. We let it dry for another day or two, then hand slice it. We have people all the time that will say, ‘The lox is so incredible because I can really taste the salmon, and I can taste the dill or lemon.’ That’s because we don’t use too much salt; just enough so that it does it’s job, but the flavors of the salmon still shine through. (Photo: Wexler’s Deli)