Langer’s has served more than 4 million pounds of pastrami since its inception. The story begins in 1905, with the arrival at Ellis Island of Harry and Rose Langer, from Odessa, Russia. A tailor by trade, Harry settles with Rose in Newark, New Jersey. They have three children — Joe, Al and Morris.
In 1924, Al, now 11 years old, gets a job at a local delicatessen as a busboy, cleaning tables and assisting the waitresses. The waitresses went home at 8 PM, so Al would wait tables on his own until closing. From age 11 to becoming an adult, Al worked in delicatessens throughout the New York area. It was during this time he perfected his ability to hand-slice pastrami, a “lost art” knifing skill that preserves the juicy flavor and tenderness of the meat during cutting. As a result, Al became a highly sought-after delicatessen counter man.
In 1936, Harry, Rose, Joe and Al Langer relocated to Los Angeles, where new opportunities in tailoring work awaited the head of the family. Al began working at a variety of delicatessens around Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, then a thriving Jewish community, as well as locations on Hollywood Boulevard. Eventually, Al purchased The Famous Deli, a small delicatessen near the corner of 7th and Alvarado, a mere 12 seats for patrons. This would become the Langer’s Delicatessen.
Time passed and Al’s success grew along with the deli’s. Space became available south of the original location, allowing the restaurant to expand first to 58 seats and by 1968, to 135 seats (the present configuration). During the 1950s and early 1960s that became famous for its delicious pastrami and hot, crispy-crusted rye bread. Al created the #19 — hot pastrami, cole slaw, a slice of Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on hot rye — and it quickly became the deli’s most popular sandwich, a laurel that it holds to this very day. I’m not sure what the prices was back then, but today it is $14.45. This might seem a little expensive if it weren’t for the fact this might be the best sandwich in the United States.
I went to Langer’s a few years ago. I had a cup of the cabbage soup and immediately sensed I was in for a treat. It only got better once they brought me the #19. It was more than memorable — it is my reference point for all other pastrami — and all other sandwiches for that matter. A few years pass, I am back in LA and we decide we must make a trip to Langer’s. I consider ordering something else for fear that the #19 might disappoint. As time passes it is easy to elevate a food experience to something a little more than it was. With time often comes nostalgia — and a memory or experience can become idealized. You try and recreate the experience and so often it disappoints. It’s difficult to know if it is in fact a lesser experience than the original — or if emotions played a part in distorting the memory of the original experience.
It would have been very easy to pick something else, it was 11 am — so breakfast and lunch were an option and like any great deli, Langer’s menu offers many different items in many different combinations. After deliberating, I knew I had to go with the #19 — hot pastrami, cole slaw, a slice of Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on hot rye.
Truth be told, it was better than last time. The bread’s crust was thicker — it was more like a shell than a crust — and of course the pastrami was delicious. My next trip I might just get a pastrami on rye with mustard — I can’t imagine it could get much better than that and the absence of cole slaw, cheese and dressing might be a better format to let the real stars of the sandwich shine. I left knowing that was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had — and perhaps at the very top of the list.
I am not alone in that opinion. Nora Ephron, in her article that appeared in The New Yorker, wrote the following:
The hot pastrami sandwich served at Langer’s Delicatessen in downtown Los Angeles is the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world.
Ephron goes on to describe the bread (the bread is a key ingredient in the deliciousness of this sandwich):
Today, Langer’s buys its rye bread from a bakery called Fred’s, on South Robertson, which bakes it on bricks until it’s ten minutes from being done. Langer’s bakes the loaf the rest of the way, before slicing it hot for sandwiches. The rye bread, faintly sour, perfumed with caraway seeds, lightly dusted with cornmeal, is as good as any rye bread on the planet, and Langer’s puts about seven ounces of pastrami on it, the proper proportion of meat to bread.
David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen, had similar praise as posted on JewishJournal.com:
Langers, home of the finest pastrami sandwich in the universe, much less the country…
Langer’s has also received the coveted James Beard Foundation award. David Shaw writing for the James Beard Foundation in commemoration of our America’s Classics award wrote the following:
In Los Angeles, where any business that stays open for more than five years is likely to proclaim itself a “legendary institution,” Langer’s Delicatessen is the real thing. Langer’s is also a living microcosm of the Los Angeles story, from dramatic post-war growth through all the triumphs and tribulations, changes and challenges that have followed.
Opened in 1947 with just 12 seats, almost forced out of business by recession and the urban blight of drugs and gangs in the early 1990s, then rescued by — of all things in Los Angeles, a subway! — Langer’s lives on, serving what many deli aficionados on both coasts consider the best pastrami sandwich in America. Norm Langer started working for his dad, Al, in 1963, and he’s been there virtually every day since. His father, who passed away shortly after the restaurant celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2007 — would come in for a few hours three or four days a week to help out with the lunch rush and greet longtime customers, many of whom recognize the children in the family photos on the walls.
Just west of downtown, in a neighborhood more shabby than chic, on a street corner at Seventh and Alvarado in a heavily Latino area, adjacent to a burgeoning Korea Town, it draws an eclectic and loyal clientele — including at least one Korean businessman who calls Langer’s pastrami “Jewish kimchee.”
All very high and well deserved praise, leaving little doubt that a trip to Langer’s is as memorable as it is delicious. Any survey of the world’s best sandwiches or a visit to Los Angeles is simply not complete without a stop at this landmark deli. Highly recommended.