I have a soft spot for Jewish deli food for a number of reasons. The most obvious: I am Jewish, thus deli trays were a staple at larger family events, piled with corned beef, pastrami, and cheese. Additionally, when I was seventeen, I unwittingly began my decade-long waitressing career at a metro Detroit deli, called The Stage. It was a wild experience – the patrons wanted their coffee hot, their corned beef lean, and they would never hesitate to convey when you failed to fulfill their exacting specifications. I learned some great life lessons working there, and I also ate a lot of great deli food. As staff, we were permitted to order something to eat at the end of every shift. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fully understand how good I had it. Later, I would learn that most restaurants either provide an employee discount on food, or they prepare a “family meal,” which is a wild card. At the Stage, I ate corned beef, mushroom barely soup, and chopped deli salads on a daily basis, but I understand the extent of this privilege until I went on to work at other restaurants.
Beyond my nostalgia for the meals at my first job, I lived in Colorado for the last five years, where Jewish culture and delis are limited. Living in LA, I no longer have to live a deli-free existence. I was recently chatting with my food-loving boss, asking her thoughts on the best delis in the area. She listed a few: Nate n’ Al’s in Beverly Hills; Brent’s (which I’ve had before, and it is divine); she also mentioned Langer’s, noting that they were particularly well known for their pastrami. In fact, Langer’s is so famous for pastrami, they include a section on their website dedicated to overnight shipping of pastrami all over the country. It’s only available a few days of the week, so plan accordingly. They have served over six million pounds of pastrami since 1947, and the deli was a James Beard Award recipient in 2001. I had a feeling their pastrami may be worth a try. A few days later, my boss and I were at a meeting in Koreatown, which wasn’t far from Langer’s; it seemed like a good opportunity to add another sandwich worth of pastrami to six million pound count.
We arrived at Langer’s, which has a distinctly old school feel, with chocolate brown leather (or maybe pleather) booths, Formica tabletops, and wood paneling on the walls. On the way to Langer’s in the car, I was envisioning a half pastrami sandwich with a cup of mushroom barely soup for my lunch, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was certain that Langer’s served mushroom barley soup, but delis tend to serve soups on a rotation for different days of the week. As I scanned the menu, I saw that I was in luck: mushroom barley soup with giblets was served every Wednesday and Thursday.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of mushroom barley in my food life, but never with giblets. My boss recommended it enthusiastically, so I didn’t shy away. Giblets were not something I ate growing up. My dad is a skittish eater; he felt that were essentially inedible, and my grandmothers always claimed them anyway. I was excited for a new twist on a classic. The soup came first, and looked pretty standard: a beige soup with a slight sheen, full of tender barely, sliced mushrooms, and the occasional shard of minced carrot. The giblets were tender and rich, in bite-sized pieces. You could easily picked around them you wanted to, but I enjoyed them, and they gave the whole soup an enhanced savory flavor.
Then the pastrami sandwich arrived, lovely in its simplicity. The Langer’s menu describes their pastrami as “a select cut of beef, sugar-cured and seasoned as corned beef, then slowly smoked for tenderness and tantalizing taste and flavor, then covered with choice and costly spices.” The phrase “choice and costly spices” is a little vague, and grandiose for my taste, but I do appreciate the succinct description of what makes pastrami just that. I lifted the lid off the sandwich and found a pile of steaming pink pastrami, nearly falling apart. I smeared mine with a healthy dose of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard, replaced the bread, and dug in. The sandwich was rich and very simple. The pastrami was tender and moist, with just the right amount of fat. The bread was a caraway-studded rye, lightly toasted. The interior was soft, but sturdy enough to hold the softer meat, and the crust was chewy. Of course, I could have ordered my sandwich with Cole slaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, a classic combo that Langer’s boasts as its most popular sandwich. It would have been delectable, yet I was glad to have the opportunity to enjoy the pastrami in its purest form.
November 13, 2014