July 24, 2009

I just got a peek inside David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli,“ due out Oct. 19, and can report that it is official: L.A. is the best deli city in America.

Bite that, New York.

Flip to Chapter 10 of Sax’s fanatically researched, snappily-written tome, whose full title is “Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen” (Houghton Mifflin). Right there Sax says it:

“Brace yourself New York, because what I am about to write is definitey going to piss a lot of you off, but it needs to be said: Los Angeles has become America’s premier deli city.“

Sax lives in Brooklyn.  He’s traveled the breadth of this country, and to Europe, tasting deli at every stop. He knows what he’s talking about—it’s what WE’VE been talking about for years. In a 2002 cover story on delis in The Jewish Journal, Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold told our writer:

I think Los Angeles might be the best deli town in the country right now. I have spent my entire life being sneered at by New Yorkers for living some inferior version of Jewish life here, and then I move to New York and find out that, gosh sakes, it’s right here in Los Angeles.

But, hey, now the world knows.

Sax, who spent a lot of meals out here noshing his way to proof, presents his evidence: Nate ‘n Als, Arts, Canters, Brents, Greenblatt’s, Factors, Juniors and… Langers, home of the finest pastrami sandwich in the universe, much less the country.

And Sax still leaves out Barney Greengrass, Fromins, Izzy’s and Pico Kosher, which ain’t bad (and it’s kosher).  I’d also include the Broadway Deli—an LA-hybrid, to be sure— GotKosher, which, while not an official deli, has quality cured meats, and Jeff’s Kosher Sausage, which actually makes its own pastrami. See, NYC, we have deli to spare.

What has happened, according to Sax, is that while NYC’s delis have become tourist spots and museums, LA’s remain integral to the life and business of the people who live here. He writes:

There has been no grand decline in the L.A. deli scene. Most are packed, sometimes around the clock…The delis out there are bigger, are more comfortable, and ultimately serve better food than any other city in America, including the best pastrami sandwich on earth. Los Angeles is both the exeception to the rule of the deli’s inevitable decline and the example to the rest of the nation of how deli can ultimately stay relevant.

Relevant deli.  Sure, it sounds like the ideal name for a post-modern rock band, but what does “relevant deli” mean?  It means a restaurant that serves the business, social and spiritual needs of the people who live around it. Sax doesn’t go there, but I believe a deli, to be relevant, has to hit all three notes. It has to have the quality and comfort that make it an easy spot to bring the family and do business, and it also has to feel like home, and like the Old Country, whether that old country is real or imagined. That feeling has to come through in the atmosphere, in the clientele, and in the taste.  There is something in nostalgia that feeds the soul—and a good deli supplies it.  And somehow it bwas nostalgia, the yearning for the past, that ensured LA’s deli future: All those ex-pat New York writers, agents and producers taking meetings over lox and onions actually turned LA into into a better deli city than the place they were trying to recreate.

The Journal will have more closer to pub date, and you can read more about Sax and his book at his web site.

Let me just take a second to say this again, though:

Bite that, New York.


To read about Langer’s in our cover story by Joan Nathan, click here.

To see a video on “A Day at Canters,“ click here.

For our October 3, 2002 interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold in which he says, “I think Los Angeles might be the best deli town in the country right now,“  click here.

For my piece on Jonathan Gold, click here.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.