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Sunday, August 9, 2020

With Wexler’s, L.A. elevates its deli ‘A-game’

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Traditional deli food is enjoying a national renaissance: New York City is home to Mile End Deli and Sadelle’s. Washington, D.C., has DGS. San Franciscans continue to embrace Wise Sons, and Portland, Ore., boasts Kenny and Zuke’s. 

And with the recent opening of Wexler’s Deli on Santa Monica Boulevard between Sixth and Seventh streets, L.A. has undoubtedly caught up with other major cities when it comes to reinventing this particular cultural niche. This news is a continued step in the right direction that began when chef Micah Wexler and business partner Michael Kassar founded Wexler’s Deli in downtown’s landmark Grand Central Market in spring 2014.

It’s never wise to dwell in an urban inferiority complex, but we’ll admit it does feel good to stake our place in the nouveau deli movement, which Wexler’s Santa Monica solidly does by proving that nonindustrial, thoughtfully made deli food is cool. 

For two-plus years, loyalists queued up at the Grand Central Market counter to get their hands on sandwiches like the O.G. (pastrami), Macarthur Park (an ode to Langer’s No. 19), Boyle Heights (corned beef) and L.A. Bird (roast turkey), along with the streamlined menu’s other deli classics. 

The new Wexler’s (wexlersdeli.com) gives the chef more room — literally and figuratively — to expand but not overstretch his edited repertoire. Customers can enjoy more of what they want in an appealing room designed by Jessica Marx of J. Marx Atelier with 30 seats, including a classic counter setup. With more murals painted on white subway tile by artist Gregory Siff that reference Jewish food, local landmarks and hip-hop culture, Wexler’s Deli 2.0 is the logical evolution of what started downtown and taps into many broader food currents. 

The conventional seating arrangement and ample prep space contrast with the compact Grand Central Market counter and enable Wexler to flex his classically-trained-meets-down-home-cooking muscles. For instance, Wexler’s now can always offer matzah ball soup, partially based on his mother’s recipe. Made with Jidori chicken and topped with a delicate smattering of gribenes, or chicken cracklings, and wisps of fresh dill, it’s a deceptively simple dish and far from the sodium bombs lamentably found served on other tables around town. 

Lauded pastry chef Nicole Rucker, who works her magic with her signature doughnuts available at Cofax on Fairfax, collaborated with Wexler on recipes for babka and luscious black-and-white cookies. Then there’s the “Big Salad,” a nod to the lone healthy-ish item delis typically have offered, but with farmers market fresh gem lettuce and veggies with dill vinaigrette, instead of torn up heads of iceberg and canned ingredients blanketed with bottled dressing. 

Smoked salmon.

Deli fish fanatics will rejoice at having access to a steady supply of Wexler’s smoked fish salad, lox and sturgeon, plus smoked trout and pastrami-style lox added to the Santa Monica menu. Fish comes either served on a properly dense — but not overly so — bagel, or sold to-go by the pound. All can be washed down with a cup of coffee, chocolate phosphate, egg cream or Dr. Brown’s soda. (Customers who ask about diet sodas will be gently told Wexler’s doesn’t sell any.)

“Otherwise, everything else is the same,” said Wexler, a San Fernando Valley native. Quality is about aiming for sustainability, as well as sourcing ingredients with “no hormones, no antibiotics and as local as possible,” he added.

Regarding the particular location, “It’s kind of a changing neighborhood, lunch-wise,” Wexler said. The Santa Monica Library is across the street, and an increasing number of mixed-use residential-commercial buildings, as well as a burgeoning tech industry scene and the recently completed Expo Line Metro extension, set the local tone. Los Angeles is a city where suburban sprawl and urban density have both proved conducive to deli culture, so it’s fitting that the contemporary-retro Wexler’s is part of this urbanizing seaside town. 

With lines around the corner during opening week, Wexler’s early customers were ready and eager to nosh. Weekends have been “crazy,” the chef said, adding that “brunch business is big for the whole Westside.” Clientele has included “a lot of Jewish people in the neighborhood coming through,” from surrounding communities such as Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, and “as far as Long Beach,” he said. Wexler’s is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

This is Wexler’s first time managing more than one kitchen and restaurant. The challenge? “Just trying to keep up with production,” he said. 

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