LET’S TALK DELI / stop claiming what’s new is old

By Larry Levine –

Let’s talk deli – Jewish deli. It will be a discussion inspired by the latest edition of Bon Appetit.

The cover of the September issue touts: “Holy pastrami. The Jewish deli is back.”

That’s more than enough to pique my curiosity and send me hurrying to page 28, where I found a very short article headed LONG LIVE THE DELI!

What I found there is a shallow, sophomoric, formulaic, simplistic, trite and otherwise inane feature with all the research sophistication of a Google search. Other than that, the article isn’t very good.

No one writing about the Jewish deli being back would include “Oh, and that mayo on your rye? It’s caramelized shallot aioli.” Huh? Any Jewish deli that would put aioli – or mayo – on a pastrami sandwich may be contemporary, but it most definitely is not “back”. Back presumes the resurrection of something left behind.

Then there’s this: “Katz’s in New York and Langer’s in Los Angeles can finally call a truce, because San Francisco’s Wise Sons vs. Brooklyn’s Mile End (where the deli renaissance arguably took root in 2010) is the new bicoastal showdown.”

I’ll grant the author some credibility in the references to Wise Sons and Mile End. I have yet to sample either, but David Sax, author of Save the Deli, has nice things to say about both, although Mile End serves Montreal-style pastrami and my trusted Jewish food friends in San Francisco say they never heard of Wise Sons.

The references to Katz’s and Langer’s, however, raise some serious doubts about the author’s actual deli knowledge.

Go to Google and ask for the best pastrami sandwich in New York and you’ll be directed to a series of fawning references to Katz’s. A Google search for the best pastrami sandwich in Los Angeles leads to Langer’s as the hands down winner. I know people who insist Langer’s serves the best pastrami sandwich in the U.S.

Here’s the thing. Katz’s may have earned and deserved the reputation of best pastrami sandwiches once upon a time. But no more. The reputation lingers long after the reality has gone bye-bye. Last time we were there the pastrami was dry and stringy and there wasn’t enough meat between the rye slices to make a decent pastrami scramble, let alone a sandwich. The bread, even the crust, was limp. Jennifer ordered a lox and cream cheese on a bagel. There wasn’t much more salmon on that sandwich than you would find on a couple of pieces of sushi.

Langer’s is another matter. It, too, may be a case of the reputation outliving the reality. Pastrami on rye isn’t even the biggest selling pastrami sandwich at Langer’s. Instead, it’s something called Number 19 – pastrami with Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye bread. With all that stuff piled on, how would anyone know if the pastrami really is that good? Forgive me, but if I’m going to judge pastrami, I want to taste the pastrami, not some latter day mutation of a pastrami sandwich in which the meat is disguised by an assortment of other stuff. It’s like trying to figure out if the corned beef in a Rueben sandwich is any good.

When I go to Langer’s, I order pastrami on rye – straight. Just some yellow mustard. It’s always good, but I’m not sure it’s even the best in L.A. anymore and I know it isn’t the best in the country. I think the pastrami on rye at Brent’s Deli in Northridge is better than Langer’s. Same goes for Art’s Deli in Studio City. And I know the pastrami on rye and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor MI is better than any of these, probably the best I’ve tasted in nearly 70 years of doing deli.

Back to my beef with the Bon Appetit piece. The number of Yiddish and Jewish words stuffed gratuitously into two pages in staggering. Knishes, kaput, shivah, rugelach, kugel, kreplach, bialy, bubbe – all just slapped onto two pages to create the illusion that the author / editor have some real knowledge of Jewish delis.

The overriding issue I have with the article is the contradiction between the cover promo – “the Jewish deli is back” – and the author’s statement that “a new generation of delicatesors is harvesting our salty tears …”  Which is it; what is the article about – the comeback of old style delis, or the new generation of derivative delis?

The answer clearly is the latter. Witness the spotlighted dishes at four delis that anchor the article:
At Wise Sons it’s the “Semite Sandwich (pastrami, Swiss, and fried egg on rye)”.
At Stopsky’s on Mercer Island in Washington State it’s “Latkes Benedict (poached eggs, latkes and hollandaise with lox)”.
At Rye Delicatessen & Bar in Minneapolis it’s “The Reason for Rye (corned beef, smoked meat, chopped liver, red onion, and spic mustard on rye)”.
At Mile End it’s “Smoked Meat Poutine (fries, smoked meat, cheese curds, gravy)”.

Real Jewish delis and kosher delis – the ones in Brooklyn in the 1940s and in Boyle Heights in L.A. in the 1950s and 1960s – would have shut down and locked the doors before they would even think of serving any of the four sandwiches listed above.

So, what’s the point of all this? Is it my self-righteous rant against lazy research, lazy writing, and lazy editing? If you want to do an article on delis, spend the time, energy and resources to do it right. And if this is the level of your competence on a subject like this, why should I trust anything else you publish.

I will admit to a couple of relevant things: 1) the past will never come back; the great delis of the 40s and 50s are gone (so stop touting any kind of comback) any likenesses today are few and far between; 2) some of the sandwiches described in the article actually might be good; but don’t claim they represent a comeback of delis; instead make your article about the coming of the new 21st century style of deli.

And while we’re at it: the same magazine cover barks “The 10 Best New Restaurants in America”. Yeah, sure. Have your tried them all?

For a review of Save the Deli: Save the Deli

For a Langer’s recommendation: Langer’s

For an Art’s recommendation: Art’s

Read about Zingerman’s: Zingerman’s

About the Author

Larry Levine is the founder and host of atLarrys.com and Table Talk at Larrys. Read his full biography by clicking here.