The Best Thing Between Sliced Bread
A little coleslaw, a lot of mustard, pastrami sandwiches are one of America's best
inventions. (photo by Ashley Ragovin)
Regrets--we all have them. I try not to live a life full of regrets, but I have to confess that I have many. They mostly stem from my decisions about food. "I should have gone with my first mind and ordered the steak; look how small this chicken breast is!" or "Why did I tell her we'd share pizza and pasta? I definitely won't be full after this!" Those are just two examples of my simple, yet daily regrets. But one food regret surpasses them all: Why didn't I make a trip to Carnegie's or Katz's delis while in New York last summer?
I had too much on my plate for that trip. I was overzealous, thinking that I'd survive off of the cuisines of Bobby Flay or Mario Batali at their respective restaurants. However, I didn't even make it to those! So how did I manage to visit the birthplace of the pastrami sandwich and not even manage to taste, let alone even order one? My Jewish friends would be so upset. Hell, I'm still a little bitter. So on the eve of Sukkot, I'd like to ask forgiveness from my Jewish pals and honor them by spotlighting my favorite sandwich: pastrami.
Pastrami is an American institution. Jewish immigrants living in New York in the 1870s or 80s applied a Southeastern European flavoring and smoking technique to corned beef brisket. The result was a deliciously spiced and smoked meat that would eventually become one of the most popular items sold in a deli. The unique mixture of spices applied to the meat's rub allows for delis to create their own tasty, secret variations. Spices include paprika, coriander, brown sugar, cardamom, mustard seeds, garlic and cinnamon.
Pastrami is commonly served, and in my opinion should only be served, between two slices of rye bread. Toppings tend to vary, but popular ones are coleslaw, sauerkraut, mustard (plenty of it), cheese and a crisp kosher dill pickle on the side.
My parents turned me onto pastrami as a little kid. It was actually a treat to have pastrami sandwiches every once in a while when my dad didn't cook dinner. I was convinced that pastrami couldn't get any better than the little corner stand we often frequented. That was until I discovered Jewish delis.
There weren't many of those in the neighborhood I grew up in, so I only recall going to a few here and there. Yes, I knew they existed, but what I didn't know was that they were hoarding (or maybe just home to) the best pastrami ever. Don't get me wrong, great pastrami isn't only found at your local Jewish deli. However, when I first ordered the "number 1" from Langer's Deli on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, my life would forever be changed.
Heaven, in sandwich form, was placed in front of me. Blessing me with its presence was thick-sliced, unbelievably tender pastrami, stacked between two pieces of warm, soft, crispy-crusted rye bread. One bread slice was coated in Russian dressing and the other was a cushioned barrier to a scoop of coleslaw. At first glance you'd think the sandwich is big enough to share, but after one bite you won't regret having it all to yourself.
Langer's claims that the "number 19" is its most popular item. I don't doubt that, but the number 1 is superior in taste (note its number). The only difference between the two is that the latter lacks a couple of slices of Swiss cheese. In my opinion, the cheese just sits there, soggy, wishing it was warm enough to melt, and emitting a smell that masks and overpowers the spices of the pastrami. And with the number 1, unlike my usual preference of pairing mustard with pastrami, there is no need to even smear the smallest dollop of Gulden's spicy brown mustard.
I've yet to taste a better pastrami sandwich in Los Angeles, or even see one that elicits the type of memories and stomach rumbling that a Langer's pastrami does. Since I haven't had a pastrami sandwich in the city of its birth or anywhere outside of Los Angeles for that matter, I'm not qualified or bold enough to declare Langer's pastrami the best in the world--thank you Nora Ephron for assuring my taste buds and making me rethink that whole New York regret thing.
But one thing that I'm willing to proclaim is this: Langer's has the best pastrami I've ever tasted, and with that said, I have no regrets!