When it comes to choosing the best pastrami in the country, there are really only two contenders — Katz’s and Langer’s. As a New Yorker, I always believed fervently in the former and admired the latter but considered it inferior. Well, a recent trip to Los Angeles allowed me to make a direct comparison, and maybe you’ll be surprised at the outcome.
Langer’s was founded in 1947, making it 60 years younger than Katz’s. Located northwest of Downtown in Westlake, the exterior is slate gray with jazzy lettering appropriate to its postwar founding; it feels positively optimistic. Inside find classic diner decor, with dark brown Naugahyde booths, lampshade chandeliers, and big picture windows that look out on MacArthur Park.
Along one side of the dining room, a series of carving stations provides a colorful respite from the restaurant’s relentless shades of brown. Unlike Katz’s, where carvers are in full view, all one sees at Langer’s is bobbing heads against a shiny backdrop of yellow and orange ceramic tiles. Like Katz’s, Langer’s meats are carved by hand, resulting in thick, variable slices — a rarity in the pastrami demimonde.
“Why not a pastrami sandwich for breakfast?” I thought as I arrived by subway midmorning; the restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week. Once a uniformed server seated me — there’s no self-service at Langer’s, no standing in line for your sandwich — I noticed a few tables and booths around me were occupied by patrons intent on plates of pancakes. I ordered the plain pastrami sandwich ($22), a coffee ($4, with refills), and coleslaw ($4.50). The sandwich came with only half of a half-sour pickle and no pickled tomatoes, suggesting that the typical Langer’s customer has little enthusiasm for pickles.
The sandwich was of good size, stacked over an inch thick with pink meat gleaming and steaming. What immediately commanded my attention was the lighter-than-usual, aggressively seeded rye bread with a snappy crust; each slice was quite large so the quantity of pastrami in the sandwich seemed especially generous.
The pastrami itself was a perfect meat-to-fat proportion, with half the slices substantially veined or rimmed with fat. I found myself wolfing down the sandwich, not bothering to put the mustard on – it was that good. The meat was almost sweet-tasting, perhaps a little less salty than usual. As with most pastrami, it tasted only slightly smoky.
When I tweeted a picture, several respondents asked why I didn’t order #19 on the menu, a house special that contains pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing. As a New Yorker, even the thought of this sort of pastrami abuse makes me slightly nauseous.
Shortly after that Langer’s sandwich, following an arduous plane ride that saw multiple delays, and a memorable trek through angry milling crowds at Newark Airport, I found myself standing in front of Katz’s with its colorful neon. Hoisted vertically, its main sign is now dwarfed by high-rise towers — but Katz’s Lower East Side neighborhood has fared better economically than Langer’s.
Inside was the usual decrepit array of Formica tables aligned in a room blanketed with celebrity photos and beer signs. Lines of supplicants radiated from the carving stations bookended by hot dog- and french fry counters, the latter hung with salami. Harsh fluorescent light prevailed. The decor reflects an era not so different from Langer’s, with its slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” Indeed the current version of Katz’s opened in 1949, making its premises only slightly younger than Langer’s.
Langer’s, I believe, was founded as a slicker, more middle-class sort of place, with signifiers of elegance in the chandeliers and plush seating, while Katz’s was more of a working-class, bare-bones dining hall – hence the ticket when you enter and transparency at the carving station since customers can watch as their sandwiches are prepared.
Though founded in 1888 as a sausage factory (the oldest sign on the side of the building proclaims in Yiddish “Wurst Fabric”), we don’t really know at what point Katz’s added pastrami to its menu, or even quite how pastrami got to be the wonderful product it is today. Throughout the early 20th century, Romanian-Jewish restaurants didn’t serve it, even though the dish was said to be of Romanian origin. It’s hard to believe our own cured, smoked, and steamed pastrami is a descendent of pastirma, which is a dry jerky served at room temperature.
To give both Langer’s and Katz’s an even chance, I sat at one of Katz’s waiter tables. Occupied almost exclusively by tourists, waiter tables are considered to be bad form by aficionados, who prefer the standing-in-line ritual.
The sandwich turned out to be the same size I was used to getting directly from the carvers, with about 50 percent more pastrami than Langer’s at a price ($25) not much higher. The bread at Katz’s is inferior to Langer’s, serviceable but a bit boring. The pastrami at Katz’s was darker, more deeply flavored, and a little tougher than Langer’s — part of the pleasure of pastrami is having to chew it. There was a funkier taste to Katz’s pastrami, and a thicker layer of spices along the edges; the quantity of fat was about the same at both places.
I loved them both but loved Katz’s more in its working-class audacity unchanged by time. Langer’s was a lighter and politer pastrami sandwich more suited to sunny California. Not sure I’d eat a Katz’s pastrami sandwich for breakfast, but in the case of Langer’s, it was just the thing.