With stark Southern California sunshine illuminating the historic area on South Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park with white icicles of light on a post-holiday wintry morning we were on a quest to try legacy pastrami on rye. At eleven a.m. on a Saturday the streets were alive with Latino men and women opening their knock off shops, audio warehouses, trinket emporiums, curbside flea markets and hot food roadside tamale stands. After parking in the lot devoted to the restaurant, we walked the block to Langer’s Deli which sat on the corner no more weary for wear beckoning the throngs of visitors who would come for no nonsense meat and sandwiches churned out like they have been for the last 67 years. Thanks to the conveniently adjacent Metro station, today eaters from all over L.A. can frequent this almost forgotten neighborhood for a bite.
If ever there were a place to belly up to the bar, it was here, where old-fashioned and generously padded, tufted brown faux-leather seats swiveled with a direct view into the glass enclosed counters revealing cooks in white smocks and paper hats carving up smoking hot roasts of pastrami and corned beef, smoke curling up and away into the ethers where cans of tuna, sardines and matzo flour sat aligned on wooden shelves. There are no glass displays of overstuffed baked goods or large rows of bread loaves or cutesy, framed sayings on the walls. It’s a simple joint where people come for that plate of bread and meat accentuated with none other than a simple pickle slice, enough to fuel them up on their way from one place to another. An institution serving lunch to the common man one rapid forkful at a time.
We ordered the famous #19 and a corned beef, both served on the softest beds of rye with a surprisingly thick and sturdy crust that I’ve tried. The #19 was stuffed with buttery, tender slices of pastrami that melted into the warmly sweet Russian dressing and perfectly light-on-mayo cole slaw in a flavorful combination that was all married by the slightly sour tang of a slim piece of Swiss cheese. Although Brent’s Deli in Northridge still boasts my favorite pastrami meat, Langer’s definitely serves my favorite overall pastrami sandwich.
It was also nice to eat in a place where you know you could have been sitting any number of decades ago while encountering the same young Jewish waitress, hair back in a ponytail who watches your first bite to make sure it’s followed by a smile, the same old grey haired server who although getting long in the tooth, still enjoys his smoke breaks outside where he teases all the young senoritas who pass by with tall combs in their hair and the wise-cracking cashier decked out in gaudy jewelry and harsh half moons of cheek rouge who hands you your change in coins with a “Have a great day now, you hear.”
Old school food institutions that actually serve great tasting food are getting harder and harder to come by and as we finished our visit at Langer’s I found myself stepping back out onto the streets, seeing the fresh line that had formed of waiting diners of all different stripes and colors, and hoping that it would be one of those places that lasts. I can see myself visiting again in old age only with a newspaper and an egg cream this time, slowly sitting through lunch in a booth watching the next generations grow delighted by that luscious #19.