The Jewish delicacies’ long, slow decline has been complained about for years.
According to city data, in the early 1930s, in New York’s five boroughs alone, there were more than 1,500 kosher delis and many more non-kosher ones.
In recent years, the estimate has dropped to 150 across North America.
So it’s a reason to celebrate that Langer’s delicatessen, the venerable pastrami emporium on the 7th, and Alvarado at MacArthur Park marked another milestone this weekend. The restaurant, which opened in June 1947 with seating for 12 customers, is now 75 years old.
Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
Langer’s is, of course, a Los Angeles institution.
In 1991, Jonathan Gold wrote in The Times, “The fact is inescapable: Langer’s probably serves the best pastrami sandwich in America.”
In 2002, Nora Ephron took it one step further, stating unequivocally in the New Yorker that Langer’s made the world’s most delicious hot pastrami sandwich. She described it as “soft but crunchy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but spicy.”
And, if I may say so, my recent lunch of matzo ball soup and hot pastrami on rye with sauerkraut confirmed—at least to my satisfaction—that those ratings still hold.
If you don’t want pastrami, there are, of course, alternatives. You can have the corned beef (Mimi Sheraton called it “excellent” in a 42-year-old review that still hangs, faded, in the restaurant window). Or blintzes, kasha varnishes, latkes, a bowl of borscht, or a knish with gravy. For dessert, a noodle kugel. I think you could also order the burger or even – don’t tell the ancestors, please – a ham and cheese sandwich. But that would not be very smart.
Ephron was mocking the decor. “It’s decorated, though ‘decorated’ probably isn’t the right word, in tufted brown vinyl,” she wrote. That was 20 years ago, and it still looks like that today.
She noted that Langer always seems to be full. That is still true.
The suffering of Jewish delis over the years has been countless, the challenges enormous: the death of the Shtetl generation and its children. The assimilation of his grandchildren. The spread of the Jewish population from the cities to the suburbs (and, in Langer’s case, from Westlake-MacArthur Park to the San Fernando Valley and the Westside).
Rising rents. The climbing costs of ingredients. The tut-tutting of cardiologists everywhere, with all that fat, carbs, and salt.
More recently, the COVID shutdowns. And now, another burst of inflation.
The price of a pastrami sandwich at Langer’s recently soared to $22, which even the owner, Norm Langer, admits is meshuga.
“Is a half pound of meat, two slices of rye bread, and a pickle worth $22?” he asks. “I don’t know. But I have to make ends meet.”
When the restaurant first opened, a pastrami sandwich cost about 35 cents. When The Times mentioned the deli in 1973, the price had risen to $1.75. In 2002 it was $8.50.
Langer is 77 years old. He says he has no plans to retire. “I get up in the morning; I have somewhere to go,” he says. “Everyone needs a place to go.”
His father opened the restaurant, Al Langer of Newark, NJ, which had started as delicatessen years earlier when his mother sent him to work to raise money for his $35 bar mitzvah. In 1947, Al was living in LA, recently out of service, and had $500 in savings. He borrowed a few thousand more.
At the time, the Westlake-MacArthur Park neighborhood had a large middle-class Jewish population. At one point, the restaurant had so many businesses that it stayed open until 3 am. Now it closes at 4 pm?
In the 1980s, The Times wrote endless stories about the deli’s problems due to its changing neighborhood, including a theatrical article on MacArthur Park titled “Winos, Dopers, Crime Overrun City Landmark.” But Langer persists.
The restaurant got a boost in 1993 when the Metro’s Red Line opened, with a metro station just a block and a half away. The crowd poured in from the center.
“I saw 500 people queuing to get into Langer’s, and I said to Norm, ‘It was worth spending $1.2 billion to keep you working,'” said then-Country Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a regular.
In LA today are the delis that still exist, including Canter’s, which opened in Boyle Heights in 1931 and only later moved to its location on Fairfax. Also, Art’s Deli, Nate’ n Al’s, and Wexler’s. There is Brent’s Deli. To name a few.
But they keep closing. Izzie’s in Santa Monica closed its doors in May. Greenblatt’s in West Hollywood will close in 2021 after 95 years.
New delis have opened, in some cases, with modern, sustainable, or health-conscious twists on classic cuisine. They bet that delicacies can be improved and rejuvenated when they are less shabby and less hot-tempered.
But pastrami, let’s face it, is an acquired taste. This applies to skimmed herring, chicken liver, sole, white fish salad, and other old country products. The bagel may be firmly entrenched in the American food pantheon. Still, the traditional Ashkenazi deli fare that flourished in the years following major Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe is no doubt in jeopardy.
And thus a tangible link to the culinary past. A connection with the ancestors. A part of the collective culture.
The good blog bit is that reports of its extinction have proved premature, as LangeLangers. So instead of ripping my clothes, I’ll make the most of it while I can (and I hope my heart lasts).