November 13, 2018

Pastrami: The greatest thing since sliced bread

Despite the midday sun blazing overhead, 20 determined Angelenos labored up the long staircase alongside downtown’s Angels Flight Railway on July 30, spurred on by what awaited them at the top in the shadow of downtown’s towering California Plaza skyscrapers — pastrami, and lots of it. 

Organizers of the East Side Jews event, dubbed “Pastronomy,” greeted salivating participants from behind a mountain of wrapped deli sandwiches featuring Langer’s world-famous No. 19 and Wexler’s O.G.

“You guys are eating two of the best pastrami sandwiches out there,” said Food Network personality Adam Gertler, who hosted the gathering. “I’ll put those up against anything. However, I think Langer’s No. 19 is simply the perfect sandwich.” 

The taste test atop Bunker Hill was only the first stop of a culinary tour of Los Angeles of pastronomical proportions. Other stops offered pastrami hot dogs and tacos. (For a small contingent of vegetarians present, options included a Wexler’s egg salad sandwich, a veggie dog and fried avocado tacos.) 

Gertler, an East Coast Jew from New York who now resides in Silver Lake, said he needed no convincing to come on board. “This combines my two favorite things: talking and pastrami,” he said. 

He also said he loved the idea of getting a bunch of fellow Eastside Jews together, as he doesn’t always find opportunities to immerse himself in the local Jewish scene. East Side Jews, based out of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC), is a self-described “irreverent, upstart, nondenominational collective of Jews living in L.A.’s East Side.” 

“To be honest, I haven’t experienced Eastside Jewish life nearly enough. I miss that sense of community. You don’t even realize you miss it until you don’t have it,” Gertler said. 

On the afternoon’s first stop in California Plaza, Gertler spoke about all things pastrami, from its Eastern European origins to the intricate preparation process. Gertler also professed his love for smoked meats, explaining the pride he feels after curing, brining, smoking and steaming his own pastrami, a task he encouraged others to try. 

“You’ll feel like you ran six marathons,” he said. “It’s like having kids, I imagine. Mind you, I don’t have any kids.” 

Gertler finished by offering his take on the timeless debate over who does pastrami on rye best, declaring, in his opinion: Langer’s is the winner.

Then it was time to eat. 

Though no official winner was recognized, people filled out scorecards featuring categories such as appearance, tenderness and flavor. Conversation was dominated by familiar-sounding Jewish table talk with everyone discussing the merits of two of the city’s top delis. (Langer’s No. 19 features pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese on rye; Wexler’s sandwich is pastrami and mustard on rye.)

Photo by Shannon Rubenstone

Michael Rubenstone, 39, an actor living in Silver Lake, took his critique seriously. 

“I appreciate how Wexler’s makes the meat the star of the sandwich,” he said. “However, Langer’s wins the bread battle and is the better overall sandwich, I think.” 

Next, the group hopped on the Metro Expo Line and made its way across downtown to Dog Haus in USC’s University Park Campus to try its pastrami dog, Gertler’s own invention. Gertler is the brand ambassador and official “würstmacher” (sausage-maker) for Dog Haus. 

Gertler said he took time to prepare a homemade Gruyere cheese sauce the night before the visit for his special guests to pair with the dish. He described the dog as his own pastrami recipe ground up and put in sausage casings, served in a grilled King’s Hawaiian bun with coleslaw, which provides sweetness to balance the saltiness of the pastrami. He’s toying with the addition of the cheese sauce and looked to the tour for some guidance. The consensus was resounding approval of Gertler’s last-minute addition. 

Perry Forman, 59, a computer programmer living in Burbank who describes himself as an amateur foodie, had a glowing review of Gertler’s creation. 

“I’m not really a hot dog guy, but this was really great,” Forman said. “I’m the one at my office everyone looks to for restaurant recommendations. There’s a Dog Haus location in North Hollywood and I’m definitely going to take some of my co-workers there for lunch soon.” 

Gertler’s pastrami dogs will be available at Dog Haus’ station inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at all USC and L.A. Rams home football games this season. 

After another trip on the Metro and a visit to the newly renovated Clifton’s on South Broadway for cocktails (not included in the $30 price of the tour), the group walked to The Stocking Frame on Hill Street. The tour arrived at 5 p.m., just as the restaurant opened, to try its pastrami tacos featuring house-smoked meat served with white cheddar slaw. 

For Grant Wallensky, 28, a financial planner living in the Fairfax area, the tour saved the best for last. 

“The tacos were magnificent, delicious and truly amazing. I wish more people had stuck around,” he said, referring to those who left early. “That was my favorite stop. Honestly, I loved those tacos.”

For Tannaz Sassooni, 38, a Persian food blogger who lives in Atwater Village and frequents East Side Jews’ events, the entire tour scored high marks. 

“That’s a perfect day. I love getting to explore the city without a car, walking around, taking the Metro and exploring some good food,” she said. “The group was adventurous and up for the same sort of exploration.” 

“Pastronomy” was July’s special afternoon edition of “Last Sabbath,” a monthly series of casual, adults-only dinners sponsored by East Side Jews. Joel Serot, 32, SIJCC’s events coordinator, said write-ups in a variety of media outlets attracted people from outside East Side Jews’ normal reach. 

“We usually stick to Eastsiders, but because of the publicity for this, we have a lot of new people here,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”