By Larry Levine –
Back in the days of Damon Runyon and Nathan Detroit, when there were Jewish delicatessens all across Manhattan, the gold standard for judging a deli was the quality of its corned beef sandwich.
Most of those delis are gone now, the many of the remaining ones are in decline, tastes have changed and the gold standard has become the pastrami sandwich.
Which brings us to Brent’s Deli in Los Angeles. If you want to start an argument in L.A., ask who has the better pastrami sandwich – Brent’s or Langer’s. Each has its devotees and both rate among the best anywhere. But by the measurements of taste, texture and allegiance to historical tradition, Brent’s is the winner. (More on this later.)
Ask Brent’s owner Ronnie Peskin how he feels about the debate that pits his pastrami against Langer’s. He’ll say, “I love the discussion,” with the confident smile of someone whose sandwich is hailed from coast to coast.
Ronnie Peskin has been in the deli business nearly 70 years, since he was a teenager. He has seen delis come and go, he’s seen the business change as customer tastes evolved, and he is quick with a quip to demonstrate how things really haven’t changed all that much after all.
As a 14-year-old student at North Hollywood High School, Ronnie started work part time washing dishes at a deli owned by his uncle. In the mid-1950s a vendor from a meat packing house offered him a job at $100 a week. He worked there making pastrami, corned beef, and hamburger patties until the place went out of business.
In 1959 he went to work at Art’s Deli in Studio City CA. He made sandwiches, waited on customers at the counter, cut meat, and prepared platters for take out and catering orders. When Mort’s Deli opened nearby, Ronnie jumped at an offer to manage the new restaurant and delicatessen. In 1967 he was offered a job as manager of a deli in Northridge CA. It was a struggling and declining business and Ronnie turned down the offer. Then, in 1970, the owner offered to sell him the restaurant.
Ronnie recalls how others advised him against buying the place. It was struggling and debt-ridden. It was a Jewish deli and Northridge was not at all a Jewish neighborhood. But the restaurant was named Brent’s and Ronnie and his wife, Patricia, had a son by that name. They bought the restaurant and kept the name. It had one delivery truck and 11 employees. Ronnie paid $1,800 for the restaurant and assumed its $40,000 debt. Today, the place is run by that same son, Brent. Ronnie oversees a second Brent’s in Westlake Village.
“Everyone wanted pastrami,” Ronnie says of those early days. “No one knew about lox, whitefish, or codfish.” The restaurant was selling a lot of hamburgers, and ham or turkey sandwiches.
But the quality of what was served was unmistakable. Word spread to the Jewish community in other parts of the San Fernando Valley and Brent’s Deli became a destination. At the same time, Jewish deli food was finding a home beyond the Jewish community, including among non-Jews in Northridge and much of the rest of the central and western sections of a burgeoning San Fernando Valley.
The attention to detail and quality paid off. The original Northridge restaurant is packed from breakfast, through lunch, and into dinner, and the Westlake Village location is thriving. On the Brent’s Deli website, Ronnie reminisces: “For the first year-and-a-half I never took a day off. I made every single sandwich because I wanted each one to be perfect.”
When Ronnie bought the Northridge restaurant, it contained 60 seats. Today there are 180. Between the two locations, 200 dozen bagels, sourced from the excellent Western Bagel, are served each week. The two restaurants serve some 1,900 pounds of pastrami a week. As for corned beef, which shrinks considerably during processing, Ronnie said they go through some 2,300 pounds a week.
If you want your corned beef lean, they’ll serve it to you. But Ronnie prefers it with some fat because so much of the flavor and moisture in corned beef is in the fat. (Author’s note: I wouldn’t dream of ordering lean corned beef. I learned that from my dad as we visited Jewish delis in Brooklyn in the 1940s. And when I serve corned beef and cabbage at home, I prefer the point end because that’s where most of the fat is.)
But a great deli is about more than just pastrami and corned beef. Ronnie’s face lights up when he boasts of being the only deli that “makes our own kishke.” There’s this from David Sax’s wonderful book, Save the Deli:
“Rather than eliminating classic Yiddish fare from its expanding menu,
Brent’s has elevated it to a level of quality that is often unsurpassed,
especially their kishke.”
Sax also recognizes Brent’s as the “heavyweight among deli aficionados … the quality of Brent’s food garners praise from even the most self-assured competitors.”
How does Ronnie feel when people point to his restaurant as possibly the best Jewish deli in the nation? It would take a yard stick to measure the width of his smile as he says simply, “Unbelievable.” That was a conscious goal when he bought Brent’s 53-years ago, but it’s still unbelievable.
So, what’s changed over time?
“We’ve added some healthy options to the menu. A chicken Caesar wrap, chicken salad, tortilla soup, various Benedicts. We eliminated kippers and chicken livers because no one was ordering them. But we still have liver and onions. We added chicken tenders to a kids’ menu,” Ronnie answered.
As for corned beef, Ronnie says, “No 80-year-old woman ever ordered lean corned beef, or turkey. My grandmother was in the hospital when she said she wanted a juicy corned beef sandwich.”
Ronnie still is present at the restaurants at least five days a week. He’s at Westlake Village most days, with occasional visits to Northridge, where he chats with long-time customers like old friends. He eats breakfast and/or lunch at one of the restaurants every weekday. “I could eat lox every day,” he says, and he just might do that. The lox appetizer – lox, cream cheese, onion and tomato on a bagel – is his favored lunch time fare. For breakfast it might be pancakes and sausages.
So, what about the future of the Jewish deli? Has the customer base changed? Are younger customers coming in as the older ones die out?
Ronnie tells a story to illustrate: He and a friend were at the Northridge restaurant one Sunday at lunchtime a few years ago. Many of the customers were there with wheelchairs or walkers. His friend asked how the business could be sustainable with such an aging clientele. Ronnie told him, “If you had been here on a Sunday at lunch time 50 years ago, the place would have been full of people with wheelchairs and walkers. These are their children.”
CORNED BEEF & PASTRAMI
Both corned beef and pastrami are cured with salt and spices, but that’s where the similarity ends. Corned beef is produced from the brisket at the chest of the cow. It’s a traditional Irish-American meat, served in sandwiches at Jewish delis and plated with cabbage, potatoes and sometimes carrots as a St. Patrick’s Day meal, which also is offered year-round on Jewish deli menus.
Pastrami is for sandwiches and is rarely served any other way. Pastrami is believed to have originated in Romania or Turkey. Both meats are served on rye bread and can be served either hot or cold. Each can be prepared frittata-style with eggs.
The brine for curing corned beef most often includes water, coarse salt, garlic, bay leaf, black peppercorns, mustard seed, dried red pepper and coriander. The cured beef is steamed or boiled.
In recent years, corned beef became popular in a Reuben sandwich – corned beef with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island or Russian dressing on rye bread. (See below for how Langer’s Deli adapted this preparation to pastrami.)
Pastrami comes from the cow’s navel area or the shoulder. It also contains a lot of fat so it can remain moist during the long cooking process. Pastrami is cured in a traditional brine of salt, sugar, cloves, juniper berries and bay leaves. After brining, it’s rubbed with a combination of fennel, mustard seeds, brown sugar, garlic, coriander and black peppercorns. The meat is then smoked and steamed. Many delis, including Brent’s, have developed their proprietary versions of this mixture.
THE GREAT PASTRAMI DEBATE
For this discussion, we’ll include the pastrami served at four places – Brent’s and Langer’s in Los Angeles, Katz’ in New York, and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor Michigan.
Let’s start with Brent’s vs. Langer’s. Both restaurants use the same cut of beef, choice lean brisket from the navel of the cow. The recipes by which the meat is brined and smoked are the same. It’s what happens after, the steaming and slicing that defines the difference in what arrives on the plate. Langer’s steams the meat three hours longer than Brent’s does. Brent’s serves it sliced thin; Langer’s slices it thick.
Brent’s menu offers a pastrami sandwich. Period. Langer’s menu features something called The Number 19, which disguises the pastrami with cole slaw, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese, just as corned beef is disguised in so many places and sold as a Reuben sandwich.
The extra time the meat is steamed softens it to a point where it would fall apart if sliced thin. By every tradition of Jewish delis, thin is the way it should be sliced. I believe the extra steaming also compromises the flavor of the meat and softens the bite
I’m sure the Langer family would quibble about this and so would the many fans of the restaurant’s #19.
For many years I wondered how anyone could know if the pastrami at Langer’s is any good if it’s camouflaged like that. Then, one day, I ordered pastrami on rye. The waitress asked if I wanted the #19, which is touted in radio advertising and featured on the restaurant’s printed menu. I told her I wanted just a plain pastrami on rye. To my surprise, it was very good. It didn’t have the pure pastrami flavor of the less-steamed Brent’s meat and the bite of the Langer’s meat was too soft for my taste, which makes sense when considering the longer steaming time.
For all these reasons, I prefer the pastrami on twice-baked rye bread at Brent’s to any other pastrami sandwich I’ve eaten.
A friend returned from New York not long ago and hinted that the pastrami sandwich at the legendary Katz’ Deli is better than either Brent’s or Langer’s. We visited Brent’s and he quickly granted that the bread was better. You can’t have a great sandwich if the bread isn’t great. Last time I was at Katz’ I left saying I wouldn’t go back. The pastrami was limp and watery and the bread was soggy.
As for the other true contender for best pastrami sandwich, there’s Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. At the urging of a friend, who prefers the thick sliced pastrami at Langer’s, I stopped in at Zingerman’s en route from Chicago to Toronto a few years ago specifically to sample the pastrami. They offer a variety of sandwiches using pastrami, many camouflaged with various other things between the bread slices. But I thought the pastrami itself was excellent, thin sliced and juicy, a worthy competitor for the title of the best. But frankly, I preferred the corned beef sandwich I had the next day. It was excellent.
LOX & SMOKED SALMON
We’ve traveled often to the United Kingdom and found smoked salmon on breakfast menus and buffets, but never lox. At the breakfast buffet on our recent Norwegian cruise, there was plenty of smoked salmon available every day, but never lox. Throughout large parts of the United States, smoked salmon is offered instead of lox on hotel and restaurant menus, but seldom lox. There are vast parts of the nation, places without Jewish delis, which have never seen real lox.
Fact is, to many people the taste difference between lox and cold smoked salmon is not discernable. But there is a difference. Both are produced from salmon. Lox is salt-brined or salt-cured, but never cooked or smoked. The texture of lox is silky and rich. Lox usually is served thinly sliced with cream cheese, onion and tomato on a bagel. Some people add capers and some like it on a bialy, a roll which originated in Bialystok, Poland. Perhaps the second most common lox offering is scrambled with eggs and onions.
Smoked salmon is, well, smoked. It also is brined or cured with salt, but often sugar is added. Then the fish is further preserved with cold smoke. As for serving, smoked salmon it’s usually offered with the same bagel, onion, and tomato as lox.
There also is Nova lox, which uses Atlantic Ocean salmon and is cold smoked after curing and brining. Through the years there has been much confusion over the difference and many came to believe Nova meant a higher quality of lox. Not necessarily true. The difference is that it’s smoked and a good palate can detect the smoke flavor.
Hot smoked salmon is another thing altogether. The smoke flavor is stronger and the fish is flakier and drier.
Four of us were at lunch at Brent’s recently. I asked if anyone wanted to share an order of kishke. One very Jewish woman made a “yuk” sound as she declined. She was buying into a common perception that kishke is ground beef offal stuffed in a casing made from cows’ intestines.
Kishke comes from the Yiddish word kishke or the Polish word kishka. Both mean intestines, thus the confusion over what it is. Kishke is a rarity, even on menus at Jewish delis today. Where it is served most places make it with grain, chicken or beef fat, onions, celery and carrots and stuff it into an inedible, artificial casing.
Not at Brent’s. Ronnie Peskin’s filling for kishke is made with an exclusive recipe of brisket trimmings and fat. He buys the cow intestines and washes and stuffs them on site. I shy away from using the word best, but I’ll use it in this case. It’s the best kishke I’ve ever tasted.
I prefer my kishke straight, so I decline the brown gravy with which it’s served. My mother was a world class kishke fan, but I’m sure she never tasted any as wonderful as what Brent’s serves today.
(The photo with this feature is Ronnie Peskin, owner of Brent’s Deli, chatting with regulars at his Northridge CA restaurant, the original Brent’s.)
(Take a look at our acclaimed food memoir, Cooking for a Beautiful Woman. All author royalties from sale of the book are being donated to cancer and leukemia research and treatment.)