It happened in Los Angeles. I had gone into Langer's, the local pastrami palace, and it was the first good pastrami I'd tasted in quite a while. Sure, I grew up going to Jewish delicatessens where I had to make the earth-shattering decision between a corned beef and a pastrami sandwich. Lately, because I assumed that deli sandwiches aren't very good these days and the fatty meat is so bad for you, I had given up on pastrami. But Langer's piqued both my taste buds and my curiosity. As my trip continued, I ate pastrami so often and in so many unexpected places, that I could no longer tell whether I was pursuing pastrami or it was pursuing me.
According to many mostly West Coast mavens, Langer's, in existence since 1947 - and celebrating its 60th anniversary this week - has the best pastrami in America. But I had never been there before. In fact, pastrami is so important to Los Angeles that when the subway system was built in 1994, an NBC newscaster dubbed the Westlake MacArthur Park stop near Langer's the "Pastrami Express."
A run-down deli-like restaurant, it is located in a commercial Latino shopping strip in what was once a Jewish neighborhood. When my intrepid author's escort, Ann Binney, asked me if I wanted to stop for one of their sandwiches, I got hungry immediately, my taste buds dancing. She said we could go in or drive by. It seems that Langer's has a pick-up service, not a delivery service, so if you call in your order, you can just drive by and pick up your sky-high pastrami sandwich.
Before tasting the real thing, I asked Al Langer for the secret of his pastrami.
"We hand cut our meat, that's the first thing," said this prince of pastrami, who at 93, comes in twice a week, mostly to kibitz with the customers. His son Norm runs the place these days. "The reason I insisted on pastrami when I opened this deli after moving to L.A.," he told me when seated at one of the booths in his restaurant, "was it cost a dollar less a pound than corned beef, which was the most popular meat at that time."
The elder Langer then dragged me over to watch Jaime Castaneda, who has been working at the deli for 20 years, cut the pastrami, made from the fatty navel of a steer, by hand. Unfortunately, though, I could see that usually the pastrami, even at Langer's, is cut by machine. (The only other place I know of that cuts the pastrami by hand is Katz's Delicatessen on New York's Lower East Side.)
"The second trick is to steam the meat for a long time," he said. At Langer's, the pastrami is steamed for three to four hours, until it reaches an internal temperature of 209 degrees.
The last step to a great sandwich, he told me, is the care of the bread. Langer's takes a whole loaf of seeded corn rye from Bea's Bakery in Tarzana, re-bakes it in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes and then slices it.
Langer, a no-nonsense man, first sold sandwiches off a pushcart at Sydney's Deli in Newark, N.J. His mother got him the job. He was 12 and needed $35 to pay for his bar mitzvah. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had headed westward to California and eventually opened Langer's.
"I've been in the business for 80 years," he said as he ordered me a pastrami sandwich. "I made my reputation out of my pastrami."
Some people are pastrami purists, but I like mine with Dijon mustard and coleslaw. To me, the sweetness of the coleslaw marries well with the spiciness of the pastrami. Cured with salt, sugar and pickling spices, Langer's sandwiches are the mile-high type with one-third of a pound of meat wedged inside two slices of warm, crusty rye bread.
I was hooked. The pastrami was heavenly, although a bit mild on the spice combination ... still, the most delicious sandwich I had ever tasted.
And, to my surprise, I kept bumping into pastrami almost everywhere I went on my trip. At Restaurant Eve, in Alexandria, Va., Irish-born chef and co-owner Cathal (pronounced Cahal) Armstrong told me he makes a pastramied corned beef and cabbage braised with Guinness beer for St. Patrick's Day. Back in New York for a speech at Barnes and Noble, I ate a pastrami hamburger at Artie's Delicatessen on the West Side, definitely pastrami overkill.
While in the heartland to give a speech for the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, I stopped at Zingerman's Delicatessen. At $10.95 a sandwich, I thought, the pastrami better be good. It was. As I waited for my order to appear, Rodger Bonser, the chef of the deli, told me that Zingerman's makes theirs from Niman beef. "We use tellicherry pepper, sea salt, coriander, good beef, and no junk," he said. "We bake our bread for 15 minutes and steam the pastrami for one and half hours." I bit into half a mouthful of the sandwich ... it was so big ... and it tasted great, slightly more peppery than Langer's, but, as I recall, both the bread and the meat were sliced more thinly, making for a different texture.
Before it hit America, pastrami had a long and exciting history, Edward Luttwak, a military historian, told me when I returned to Washington." Like many preserved foods, it started as bastirma from the Turkish word "bas," which means "to press." It was the preserved meat that the famed Janissary corps of the Ottoman Empire used to make a meaty soup called "chorba."
The meat, most likely lamb, was first rubbed with salt, a little sugar and spices - enough salt being used to kill the bacteria in the meat. (You make corned beef this way, too, but after brining it, you simmer it in water.) Then they pressed the meat very tightly to preserve it by keeping out oxygen, smoked it and turned it into a cured meat that the soldiers could carry with them, without refrigeration, wherever they went. As they marched through the Empire and beyond, all the way to the gates of Vienna, they brought bastirma with them, which the locals adopted under various names: basturma, bastarma and apukht of the Armenians. Many Jews made a living as long-distance cart drivers before the railroads arrived in Europe. Needing kosher meat they could take with them, they used the same curing technique for their kosher meat and called it pastrami. At the end of the 19th century, when the great migration of Jews came to America, the Romanian Jews brought pastrami with them (it is celebrated in the Yiddish song "Rumania, Rumania"), which they made with goose before brisket and navel, serving it at their delis in New York.
From Ann Arbor, I went back to California where, to my surprise, I was on a radio program when the host Michael David Cane, with his wife, Rachel, started giving plugs for their own Old World Brand Pastrami. After the show we went to the Fog City Diner to taste the Canes' pastrami, which they cure themselves. The pastrami, spicy and delicious, was served in a Reuben sandwich, traditionally made with corned beef. Cane, who is infatuated with pastrami, is now making it for David Burke, chef at David and Donatella in New York.
"I was a private cook in Norway and made gravlax every day," Burke said. "Later, when I came to New York, I thought, 'Why not make a pastrami cure for salmon?' Now there is duck pastrami, yellow tail pastrami, pastrami squab, you name it. People are looking for spicy. It is a value added to corned beef."
Finally, suffering from pastrami overkill and wondering what would come next, I ventured forth to Wolfgang Puck's Spago at the end of my tour back in Los Angeles. What did Wolfgang serve me? An amuse gueule of pastrami foie gras with a rye crisp! When I asked Lee Hefter, the executive chef and creator of the dish, how he made it, he told me that he brines the foie gras with a salt solution and coats it with pastrami spices like pepper and coriander, before he hot smokes it to 105 degrees.
When I asked why, his reply was swift: "I'm a nice Jewish guy from New Jersey, who grew up eating pastrami."
Pastrami has come a long way.
Celebrate Langer's 60th
On Friday, June 15, Langer's will celebrate its 60th anniversary with proclamations and presentations by city and county government officials, beginning at 1:30 p.m. and continuing with a drawing for sweepstakes prizes; entry forms are available at the restaurant. The public is invited. For the celebration, Seventh Street will be closed all day in front of the restaurant.
Langer's is located at 704 S. Alvarado St., near MacArthur Park, and is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Joan Nathan is the author of award-winning cookbooks and the host of the acclaimed PBS series "Jewish Cooking in America with Joan Nathan." Portions of this story originally appeared in Bon Appetit.