The deli is arguably the most hallowed place for secular Jews. It is a meeting ground for families to mourn or celebrate; a place to nourish the mind and stomach with absurdly large portions of food; a vestigial gateway to our grandparents, who fed us fistfuls of lox while murmuring foreign Yiddish phrases. For many, delis are at the center of reform Jewish life, a tradition that links us to a past that at times seems inscrutable, or even remote.
I grew up going to Jerry’s (before the fire changed everything) and Art’s in the San Fernando Valley. People might hold that against me; I understand their distrust. Because if you grew up going to Brent’s or Nate ‘n Al’s, or any other deli for that matter, nothing else can possibly eclipse that experience of reaffirming your identity. How could mine possibly live up to yours? A deli has a remarkable way of doing just that, which is why we argue about them, and swear by what we know. It is the reason they become precious to us. Jerry’s may have gone downhill, but its matzo ball soup is still laden with meaning and memory.
No matter what you think of them, Jerry’s and Art’s served a purpose in the community. The same can be said of Wexler’s Deli in Downtown LA’s Grand Central Market. The context is different, of course. Looming nearby you can smell the aroma of fried pork sitting in its own fat. It is a lunch counter, not a full-fledged deli. No worn-in booths, but 10 counter seats. No kitsch, but white tiles and hand-sketches from J. Marx Atelier design agency. No 10-page menus, but a pared down, sandwich-centric list of “greatest hits.” Wexler’s offers updated, modern Jewish Deli fare—a food historically insistent on resisting change even while needing it the most—that boldly stays close to its roots. The look has changed, but it still feels (or tastes) like home.
The thing you have to admire about Micah Wexler’s latest venture is his decision to closely hew to tradition, a trend that Julia Moskin noted in the New York Times. He serves classic “old school deli soul food.” There are no groundbreaking innovations that distract, no gimmicks to hide behind. He squarely faces his audience with tuna salad, egg salad, turkey, pastrami, corned beef, and Reuben sandwiches; fresh bagels and rye; smoked sturgeon and cured lox; phosphates and egg creams. They are, to some degree, the bare essentials you need to call yourself a Jewish deli, handled with the precision and love of someone who is deeply tied to these eateries.
“Sometimes chefs do things based on their ego or artistic needs. But then there’s the other side of what people actually want to eat,” says Wexler. “That’s the ethos behind this deli: How would I want to eat? I don’t really want somebody’s take on pastrami or a bagel. I want to eat the best version of the real thing.”
The shift in attitude is subtle, but Wexler’s re-evaluates all of its components. Nothing is overloaded with mayonnaise. Portions are sensible, compact but still filling. The challenge, Wexler says, is to have the flavors shine through. This means, especially, controlling the amount of salt, a common crutch for delicatessens. To fine-tune the minutiae there needs to be a level of craftsmanship, and you see it all throughout the chef’s cooking.
Wexler’s makes its own lox. It is paper thin, almost translucent, not too fleshy or salty. The pickles, also brined in-house, have a wonderful snap to each bite and are not overpowered by garlic. The egg salad may be the best I’ve ever had, creamy but also slightly crumbly in texture, and you can actually taste the yolks. It’s topped with butter pickles and sits on a warm, fluffy kaiser roll.
Fairly or not, delis are judged by their pastrami. Wexler seems to know what he’s up against. One of his sandwiches is named the MacArthur Park, a tribute to Langer’s #19 with coleslaw and Swiss. Wexler spent hours perfecting a rye bread recipe with Etxea Basque Bakery in Hawthorne. It stands out partly because of the rye flour, which imparts a flavor unlike any other loaf I’ve tried. It tastes wholesome, the texture is springy but not too firm, and the crust has the crunch of freshly baked. Hand-sliced brisket pastrami is brined and smoked in-house over apple wood. They tell you it comes with lean and fatty slices, but opt entirely for the latter, which is wonderfully tender.
How could I not immediately think of Langer’s, king of pastrami? I didn’t want to re-enact a battle in my head, but my mind wandered there. Kings aren’t dethroned in a day. But with time, Wexler’s certainly seems primed to be next in line, maybe even sooner rather than later. I took a bite and looked around at the swarms of people passing by in the market, waiting in line for fish tacos or chop suey. Jewish delicatessen food, for so long untouchable, feels suddenly alive. Thanks, Wexler’s.
Photos by Justin Bolois