During lunch at the Golden State restaurant on Fairfax, in between making sure my kids’ locavore-friendly food stays on plates and haranguing them to eat a few Persian cucumber slices, my eyes often linger on the hulking building across the street. In just a couple of seconds I’m filled with the mild sting of betrayal and guilt.
Golden State sits nearly opposite Canter’s. Almost more than any other place, that deli served as my family’s home away from home from the moment we moved to Los Angeles from Dallas in 1976. Canter’s was a constant, regardless of whatever California cliché health crazes my parents tried (and inevitably abandoned).
I’d gauge my height relative to the deli and bakery counters and eventually spent many late nights underneath the trippy fall-leaf-patterned illuminated drop ceiling. And yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken my own kids there, or to any other L.A. deli.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been to all of the major delis around town, and my 6-year-old son can tell you that Langer’s has crinkle-cut fries and it’s near the Westlake/MacArthur Park Red Line Metro station. I nearly fainted with pride when he spotted a Laugh Factory sign across from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and mistakenly suggested we eat at Greenblatt’s.
I have compartmentalized deli needs that are effectively met when I want pastrami (Langer’s), matzah ball soup (Greenblatt’s and Nate ’n Al), and smoked fish (Barney Greengrass). The deli, however, dwells largely in the realm of comfort and nostalgia; we patronize it for a sense of belonging and continuity, even in the face of declining quality. Maybe we’re pickier than our grandparents (although mine, like many of their Depression-era New York-raised brethren, were always willing to declare downhill alerts). Or perhaps we’ve simply broadened our palates.
But in Los Angeles, admittedly a strong deli city, the scene is actually quite static. Food media are rife with stories of fully artisanal, nouveau kosher-style delis elsewhere: Mile End in Brooklyn, Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Wise Sons in San Francisco. The topic was even the subject of yet another panel discussion this week, this one at New York’s 92nd Street Y. A major renaissance is under way in the world of Jewish delis, yet L.A., sadly, is still in the Middle Ages.
Which leads to the question: Why not in Los Angeles?
Certain qualities distinguish this new wave of deli from its predecessors. The meat and fish should be sourced from farms and purveyors committed to environmental sustainability and, preferably, cured and smoked in-house. Pickles are also made in-house and explore a world of preserved food beyond cucumbers and onions. Breads and a modest selection of baked goods — including hand-rolled bagels, ideally — are made from scratch. Passionate cooks and proprietors respect culinary tradition, if not the laws of kashrut, while riffing on templates provided by the likes of Joan Nathan as well as their own bubbes. At these delis, cultural preservation evolves hand in hand with a farm-to-table ethos.
Progress, for them, isn’t investing in a panini press to make sandwiches feel more “modern.” It’s a place that’ll please both the meat fanatics who expect certain methods and flavors, along with the slave-to-seasonality farmers market geeks and Michael Pollan adherents.
Challenging and elevating iconic staples of the deli diet is essential, but as Mile End and restaurants of its ilk have shown, a deli can satisfy other tastes, preferences and dietary needs. Cold vegetable side dishes need not be focused on potato salad or coleslaw. (Or that updated perennial deli favorite, Chinese chicken salad.) Or, if there is coleslaw, make it a damn fine one that takes time to develop and isn’t just a vehicle for mayonnaise.
Short Rib Knockwurst at This Is Not a Pop-Up at Square One in East Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Facebook/ thisisnotapopup
This genre is not at all strictly kosher and has ignited a healthy debate about what currently defines Jewish food. Is kosher preparation and technique essential for food to taste and feel Jewish? Many in this camp emphatically say no. Mile End even hosts an annual “Traditional Jewish Christmas” Chinese meal, reflecting the fluidity of Jewish cultural and gastronomic identity, in all its complex, irreverent glory.
So why haven’t Angelenos yet had full access to this evolution? In part because, frankly, we’ve got it pretty good already. When it comes to Jewish delis, our city’s inferiority complex can finally take a break. In his 2009 book, “Save the Deli,” David Sax vouched for L.A.’s deli robustness.
Longstanding family-owned delis like Brent’s, Factor’s, Art’s, Nate ’n Al, and, of course, Canter’s, combined with an entertainment-industry culture whose meetings revolved around the deli table, pushed Los Angeles above New York, Sax told the Jewish Journal in a 2009 interview.
“I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. Who knew?” he said.
But since then, as a new generation has redefined the American deli, Los Angeles has become the victim of a successful status quo.
We do have some feints and dodges in the direction of New Deli. Plenty of toes have been dipped in the water, but nothing has coalesced so far.
Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold points to Umamicatessen’s efforts to “re-examine deli classics in a fresh way,” albeit with a heavy dose of sacrilege (the downtown restaurant also includes a high-end ham concept called Pigg), and of Storefront Deli in Los Feliz, where the words Boar’s Head dare not be uttered and the bagels are indeed handmade.
Plus, a handful of young chefs, including Ilan Hall of the Gorbals and Micah Wexler of the now-shuttered Mezze on La Cienega Boulevard, often pay homage to conventional Jewish-American foods of the Diaspora. A visit to Suzanne Tracht’s Jar or Akasha Richmond’s Akasha restaurant during certain holidays is further evidence of many chefs’ eagerness to revisit Jewish cuisine.
In the department of Jewish food diversity, we have the remarkable Kosher Corridor on Pico, roughly from Beverly Drive to La Cienega. Add to that mix a couple of deli trucks — the Reuben Truck, M.O. Eggrolls and Schmuck With a Truck — that have hit the streets over the past year.
Other ephemeral outlets exist. Chef and Food Network regular Adam Gertler recently finished a stint with the This Is Not a Pop-Up “culinary incubator” at Square One in East Hollywood, crafting sophisticated dishes such as gefilte-inspired Alaskan cod quenelles with beet horseradish puree, and duck confit-stuffed kreplach served over an elegant smudge of yogurt and harissa. Presentations of Gertler’s outstanding short rib knockwurst plated with kimchi-style pickled brussels sprouts and rye spaetzle, and babka with small-batch vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, are more haute-deli than everyday eating.
These are all good signs, but put them all together and you still don’t end up with — a deli.
Lou Amdur, owner of the erstwhile Lou wine bar and a fierce pastrami enthusiast, points to complacency and lionizing of the city’s existing delis as a thwart to Jewish culinary progress. “We sort of accept our deli culture for what it is and don’t demand much of it, which is tragic,” Amdur says. “We don’t do honor to the tradition. I love what the neo-deli folks are doing with pastrami,” such as at Kenny and Zuke’s, “because they’re not accepting it as it is.”
Nor does Amdur dismiss L.A.’s deli strengths, but the dialogue needs to transcend replication and nostalgia. “Langer’s is great. But it begs the question of how good can it be?” Resource-intensive “dry curing is really essential” to making truly exceptional pastrami, as well as reviving rye bread “that comes from a noble peasant tradition that we turned our back on.” The Times’ Gold said in an interview that for anyone looking to get into the deli game, “Langer’s does cast a long shadow.”
Still, a lot of what’s typically on display behind the glass and on the menus of L.A.’s delis doesn’t excite many of us who are admittedly self-righteous about what we eat in this era of the newest food revolution. The bottom line is, I and many of my generational peers would be thrilled to eat more outstanding deli, ideally without guaranteeing a premature relationship with a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist. Or at least enjoy a product that justifies the fat and caloric intake. (I’m not overweight, but I am genetically predisposed to high cholesterol.)
Yet the question remains, are there enough of us to sustain the alternative?
“Are we prepared to have really exceptional deli?” Amdur asks. If the time comes, the person monitoring the barrel of lacto-fermented sauerkraut might offer a lecture about single-origin coffee and invoke other foodie stereotypes. But because the Jewish deli should be about warmth and inclusion, can hipster and haimish coexist?
For a final word or bit of encouragement, I reached out to the expert — David Sax — himself. Sax said he is optimistic about the potential for the artisanal deli movement to take root in L.A. “It’s only a matter of time before one opens in L.A.,” he told me. “It’s inevitable.”