In a cover story last year for this publication, I lamented the lack of a contemporary, artisan-style deli in Los Angeles. While the deli scene in this city appears to be robust, we still need food entrepreneurs and chefs willing to shake up the status quo, much like what’s been happening in New York City, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
It’s time to honor Old World traditions using top-quality ingredients prepared in ways that satisfy today’s palates. Certain aspects of L.A.’s deli culture need to catch up with broader trends in food rather than languish in amber.
Sometime early next month, thankfully, chef and native Angeleno Micah Wexler’s latest project should help remedy this situation when he opens Wexler’s Deli in downtown’s Grand Central Market, which is open until 6 p.m. daily.
For Wexler, formerly a chef/owner of the pan-Mediterranean upscale Mezze restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard that closed in fall 2012, the environment will be conducive to evolving the dialogue and experience of deli food in Los Angeles, as well as being part of a rapidly changing community.
“It’s exciting and a challenge to be a part of re-establishing what that area and market is,” said Wexler, 31.
The Milken Community High School and Cornell University grad came to the location after taking a cheese-making workshop at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Altadena. The food-crafting educational organization is run by Joseph Shuldiner, who also has been instrumental in re-envisioning Grand Central Market, a sprawling historic space on the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building. Shuldiner and the Grand Central team, including owner Adele Yellin, subsequently invited Wexler to hang his shingle at the 1917 landmark that extends from Broadway to Hill Street, just south of West Third Street.
With only 350 square feet of space available in its stall — plus some basement storage — and 10 seats at the counter, Wexler’s Deli simply doesn’t have the room to revisit the entire pantheon of traditional American deli. Instead, a “greatest hits” deli menu will feature a few sandwiches with house-cured meats, house-smoked salmon and sturgeon, and a few side dishes.
Matzah ball soup will appear as a special rather than as an everyday item. A few classic deli sodas and semiobscure carbonated beverages will be on offer, along with egg creams made with U-Bet. (“Of course. You gotta,” Wexler said about the chocolate syrup traditionally associated with the drink.)
Whatever Wexler serves will merge Old World technique with the ethics and concerns found in other next-generation delis.
“We worked hard to find purveyors,” he said. “The beef has no hormones and antibiotics, [and it comes from] what they call an integrated system,” meaning calves are raised on the purveyors’ land and slaughtered nearby, rather than sent to feed lots. “It’s something we feel we can stand behind.”
The deli, however, will not be a kosher operation.
Those who have followed Wexler’s career in Los Angeles — he was included in the Journal’s list of “Top Jewish Chefs Under 40” last year — won’t find this turn of events entirely surprising. After all, Wexler became known for his sophisticated approach to revisiting traditional Askhekanzi cuisine during special Sunday dinners at Mezze. Making the food he learned to cook from intense study and visits to his grandmother’s kitchen felt “almost like moonlighting somewhere,” he said.
For the deli, Wexler and business partner Michael Kassar have joined forces with David Sanfield, a local restaurateur whose multilocation Pitfire Pizza restaurants appeal to crowds who demand quality food using well-sourced ingredients and served within casual and hip settings that have a distinctly Southern Californian feel.
“I think we see food and restaurants in a similar fashion,” Wexler commented about the partnership.
Los Angeles’ Jewish community has deep roots downtown, including a rich history based at the bustling Grand Central Market. Yet, other neighborhoods might seem more likely candidates for a nouveau deli in 2014, and despite downtown’s current upswing, opening there is not without risk. The Jewish food component at Umamicatessen, the deli-within-a-burger-restaurant on Broadway near Eighth Street, was recently scrapped in favor of converting the space to a default version of Umami Burger, the popular and fast-growing L.A.-based chain.
So why is Wexler confident about downtown instead of targeting an area with a palpable, obviously Jewish presence? Wouldn’t, say, West Los Angeles be a more logical — and safer — choice?
“We don’t think we have to open in a Jewish neighborhood. This is something that the city and all walks of life will embrace,” said Wexler, who lives in the Fairfax District.
Grand Central Market, with its vibrant ethnic mix, is in the midst of a transitional phase and tenant makeover that juxtaposes old-school chop suey and pupusa joints with newcomers serving upscale egg sandwiches, coffee drinks made from fair-trade and small-batch roasted beans, elegant handmade petit fours and Texas-style barbecue.
For Wexler, joining this milieu plugs his restaurant into both the legacy of American urban delis and today’s foodie culture. It reflects the mass appeal of his people’s culinary traditions, too.
“Jewish delis have moved beyond Jewish comfort food,” Wexler explained. “It’s become a city comfort food. There are a couple cities that happens in, and L.A. is one of them — especially when you talk about pastrami.”
Wexler’s dedication to pastrami is intense. He also understands how this item in particular isn’t a singular touchstone, but instead has many permutations, all of them legitimate within the context of different cultures and communities.
“Just drive around Koreatown and the Eastside,” where restaurant signage makes the near- ubiquitous presence of cured and smoked meat hard to miss, he said.
Wexler’s Deli will pay proper homage to the deli meat he considers to be one of this city’s signature comfort foods. Rye bread will come from Etchea Bakery because “they only bake on stone hearth there, so you get that crust,” Wexler said. For sweets and other baked goods, he’s been collaborating with baking pros to develop Wexler’s Deli’s own bagels, babka, and black-and-white cookie recipes.
The restaurant’s small scale will make it a pilot project of sorts. “We’ll see how it works out, and we’d like to do a larger, full-scale deli,” he said.
Jessica Marx of J. Marx Atelier designed the space, for which “we want that classic deli feel,” Wexler explained. Simple expanses of white tile will stand next to a “maple butcher block counter, which over time we want to see get rusticated. If a little mustard gets in there, I’m OK with that.”
Such an attitude is essential to blend in with an already well-worn environment, as Grand Central Market isn’t about being pristine or static. “It’s fascinating to see how it’s changed over the last year,” Wexler said, noting how Yellin, whose late husband, Ira, was a pioneering force in the Historic Core of downtown, is largely responsible for setting the tone.
“The Yellin family has really cultivated this kind of family atmosphere among the vendors,” Wexler said. “At the end of the day, it’s not a place for one single vendor. At its greatest, everyone succeeds together.”