October 27, 2009
Pico Kosher deli
Last week The Jewish Journal featured an excerpt from David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli.” Sax did a worldwide tour of delis, at great expense to his love life and his waistline, and at the end of it named L.A. “The Best Deli City in America.” For a Jewish paper in LA, that’s a pretty good lead—Jews take their food and their delis seriously.
When I got the advance copy of Sax’s book, I called the publisher and arranged for a reprint. They were stingy with the word count, because evidently this is a boom time for publishing, what with hundreds of thriving book review sections vying to give free publicity to every book out there, and the impossibility of going online and reading excerpts for free at amazon.com…. in any case, they held firm at 1500 words.
We chopped off the part of Sax’s LA chapter that dealt with L.A.‘s numerous family owned delis and retained a self-contained part that described Hollywood’s connection to the delicatessen—a section we assumed would have wider appeal. Dan Kacvinski ordered a pastrami sandwich from Langer’s, shot it like it was a supermodel, and we figured we had a winning cover package…until the letters came.
Instead of pleasing a hungry audience, we enraged our kosher readers. Not only did the excerpt fail to mention any kosher delis, we threw a full color photo of treif—non-kosher meat—right in their faces. Here was a kinder example of the outrage, this one from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin:
Several other letter writers mentioned Pico Kosher Deli as well. The fact is, Sax did neglect it. It’s not in his the excerpt we picked; it’s not at all in his book. I noticed he left it out, but didn’t think to add anything to the cover beyond the excerpt we had decided to run. The cover story wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive survey of L.A. delis—but that doesn’t lessen the slight to those Jews who observe the laws of kashrut, and who love Pico Kosher Deli.
Had he gone there, what would Sax have made of PKD, as its fans call it?
I’ve eaten there many times, at least a dozen over the years. PKD is a Pico-Robertson institution, and the only true kosher deli in all of Los Angeles. Since most of its clientele keeps kosher and wouldn’t eat anywhere else, there’s no point in comparing it to other delis in L.A. Taken on its own terms, it is quite good, if not without flaws.
The place is small, plain and cozy. It is located in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, and the kids and yeshiva students, the kipa-clad professionals and moms-in-wigs who frequent the place keep it bustling and familiar. A deli counter runs along one side, full of the familiar meats and salads. Tables take up the next room, and often you’ll need to wait amid the cacophany of phone orders, children’s screams, and loud, friendly hellos for a table to clear.
In the world of Jewish dining establishments, I find that because a place feels at home, the proprietors feel free to treat you as family would—that is, they may ignore you and let you fend for yourself. There’s never a warm greeting, a “great to see you”—because, hey, we see you all the time, and who are you anyway, the Pope? No—you’re just family.
I like that attitude. Then again, I lived in Israel and got very used to it. But for furst timers, PKD’s rough and tumble may not feel welcoming. Trust me, it is. Grab a seat before that mom with four kids leaps ahead of you in line, and don’t b shy about flagging down a waiter or busboy for the menu. In a big Jewish family, delicacy and shyness gets you bupkis. Which means nothing.
Kosher Jews will not eat milk and meat together. They will not cook it or serve it or even think of it together. So there are kosher meat restaurants, and kosher dairy restaurants. PKD is a meat restaurant. You go there for the pastrami and corned beef and chicken soup. There will be no bagels and cream cheese, because there will be no cream cheese. No blintzes, either. Asking for sour cream with your borscht is like asking an Italian waiter for parmesan on your seafood pasta. You won’t get it, and you’ll just show your ignorance.
PKD’s pastrami, served on very fresh rye bread, is a fine and generous sandwich. Kosher meats are soaked and salted—again, by Jewish law—so beef and lamb can be less juicy than non-kosher meat. But PKD’s sandwiches, when warm, are classic examples of Jewish deli. The pastrami has a peppery bite that obviates the need for the deli mustard. Here’s my take on the other PKD food I’ve tried:
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls or Noodles: This is a very light gold broth, lightly fatty, tasting of carrot, onion and salt. It isn’t the best of your life, and far from the worst. I’ve stopped by PKD many a time to by a quart for a sick friend (or wife), and it always does the trick. The matzo balls are some of the best in town, really.
Knishes: heated in the microwave, they are merely fine. Yonah Schimmel’s in New York is the gold standard, substantial yet light—and these aen’t close. But slather on some of that mustard, close your eyes, and you can believe you’re in New York, if not on 132 E. Houston Street.
Turkey Sandwich: They have several varieties: turkey pastrami, smoked turkey, Mexican turkey—the last of which I haven’t tried. Of these all go for the pastrami. It has the most flavor, and if you top it with some cole slaw, you’ll almost feel you’re getting your cholesterol quotient for the day.
Hot Dogs: These are not Hebrew National, which are not kosher enough for PKD’s certification. They lack the garlic fatty spurt I remember in kosher dogs of yore, but maybe I’m mis-remembering. On a cool day, they are still a comforting bite.
Pickles: Yes, and they are fine. Homemade? I don’t think so. But perfectly adequate.
The Israeli food here—bourekas, hummous, Israeli salad—is forgettable, easily outdone by Haifa across the street and Nagila down the block. People love the roast chicken, and the stuffed cabbage, both of which come in huge portions. But on plate after plate what you see are those sandwiches, and by any measure, kosher or not, they are worth ordering.
As for the aforementioned service, you’ll acclimate. My advice in kosher restaurants is to engage the server, treat them like your sister or brother who was nice enough to get up from the table and bring you something from the fridge. Don’t expect them to bend over backwards—they’re family.
Visit Pico Kosher Deli by clicking here.
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