In search of perfect pastrami: Your guide to the Jewish delis of Los Angeles

My life began in the tufted brown leather booth of a deli. In the fall of 1985, my mother went into labor mid-bite through a knackwurst at Nate ’n Al deli in Beverly Hills. I spent my childhood kicking the vinyl booths at Langer’s in downtown. This is where my father, a real estate broker, eats lunch at least once a week. I’ve been eating the pastrami here since my teeth came in.

Most Sundays during my childhood, my parents would drive me and my sister from Pasadena to the San Fernando Valley to share a smoked fish platter at the now-closed Solley’s Deli in Sherman Oaks. When I was stressed in college (somewhere around twice a week), I visited a nearby Jerry’s Deli in Irvine for a bowl of matzo ball soup and half a pastrami sandwich with an extra side of Russian dressing. I could be found many weekend nights in my 20s drunk on Jägermeister shots in the Kibitz Room attached to Canter’s Deli, watching a friend’s band.

While the deli culture in Los Angeles isn’t as robust as in New York City, if you grew up in this city, chances are you can trace at least one significant life moment to the Saran-wrap-laden counters of a Jewish deli. Is it a style of food and dining that’s fading away into an abyss of small-plates restaurants? I sure hope not. Those metal trays full of orange knishes, rice pudding, stuffed cabbage and smoked fish represent a comforting sort of cultural exchange — remnants from early Los Angeles immigrants. As do the 10-page menus, bottles of Dr. Brown’s soda and snappy servers who seem to always remember your order, your last hangover, and your last boyfriend.

Here is a guide to 14 Los Angeles, Jewish-style delis, for when you need a dose of nostalgia and a sky-high sandwich full of hot pastrami.
Art’s Deli
Art Ginsberg opened the Studio City deli on Ventura Boulevard in 1957. After Ginsberg died in 2013, his son Harold took over the restaurant. Its neon sign and tiled exterior give the restaurant a diner facade. Inside, the burnt-red leather booths are separated by wood paneling, each Formica table has its own bottle of mustard, and along the walls, there are blown-up photos of the deli’s pastrami sandwiches and bowls of soup — what Ginsberg called “Jewish pornography.”

The fish platter from Art's Deli. (Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Behind the counter: Art’s gets its bread and pastries from Bea’s Bakery in Tarzana. The bagels are from Western Bagel, and the pastrami, from RC Provisions, is steamed in-house.
Order this: This is where you should take your family on a Sunday morning for a fish platter. They tend to pile on enough smoked salmon and white fish to feed at least a group of five, and the bagels are perfectly toasted. For the pastrami aficionados, try the Pastrami Sky High sandwich, which includes the golden deli flavor trinity of Russian dressing, coleslaw, and pastrami. The rye bread is slathered with Russian dressing (deli speak for Thousand Island dressing), a heap of sweet coleslaw and about three inches of paper-thin pastrami with a texture that almost melts.
12224 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 762-1221,
Brent’s Delicatessen & Restaurant
Ron Peskin and his wife, Patricia, took over Brent’s Deli in Northridge in 1969 (it originally opened in 1967), and they opened a second location in Westlake in 2006. The Peskin family, including Ron’s son Brent, daughter Cari and son-in-law Marc, run the business. The original location in Northridge is in a strip mall and shares a wall with a dive bar called the Stovepiper. The restaurant, awash in a sea of varying shades of brown, feels more like a log cabin than a deli.

The latkes from Brent's Deli.

The latkes from Brent's Deli. (Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Behind the counter: The deli gets its bagels from Western Bagel and its bread from a Delicious bakery and Wild Flour Bakery. It makes all of its desserts except for the danishes and Chinese marble cookies, both made by a Delicious bakery. The knishes, cheese blintzes, and kishka are all made in-house. The pastrami comes pre-seasoned from RC Provisions, and the pickles come from the local company A1 Eastern.
Order this: Brent’s makes some of the best latkes in Los Angeles, served full size or mini, with a side of cherry applesauce the color of a pink highlighter. The sauce tastes like someone spilled their cherry Slurpee into the jar of applesauce. But it’s oddly addictive in a cloyingly sweet, I-know-I-shouldn’t-be-eating-this sort of way. The black pastrami Reuben is also quite good, served on double-baked rye with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.
19565 Parthenia St., Northridge, (818) 886-5679,
Canter’s Deli
Alex Canter’s great-grandfather Ben Canter opened Canter’s Deli in Boyle Heights in 1931. In 1948, Canter’s moved to Fairfax a few blocks north of Farmers Market and has been there ever since. Alex and his family still oversee the operations of the 30,000-square-foot, 24-hour restaurant that includes a bakery upstairs and a pickle room downstairs. It’s been a popular late-night hangout and refuge for celebrities for decades. In the ’80s, you might have seen the entire Guns N’ Roses crew at a booth. When Barack Obama was president, he stopped by to nosh and shake hands with diners. To stay current, the Canter family redid the menu in 2012 and added gluten-free bread and a vegetarian Reuben. Alex also started Ordermark, a delivery software that helps restaurants, including his own, organize delivery orders for delivery apps, such as Uber Eats, Postmates and DoorDash.

Canter's Fairfax Sandwich features hot corned beef and pastrami on rye bread with a choice of coleslaw or potato salad. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Behind the counter: Canter’s used to cure and smoke its own meat, but Alex said that due to high demand, they now have RC Provisions make their pastrami according to the restaurant’s specs. The pickles are made in 55-gallon barrels in the pickle room, and the pastries and breads are all made upstairs. Canter’s bakes its own egg, cheese and poppy seed bagels and gets its water and onion bagels from an unnamed outside source.
Order this: The matzo ball soup is always served hot and tastes like someone’s grandmother made it. The broth has a hearty, robust chicken flavor, and the matzo balls are lighter than most. And because most of the baked goods are made upstairs, you can bet that cheese bagel or black-and-white cookie is going to be fresh.
419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 651-2030,
Factor’s Famous Deli
Abe and Esther Factor opened the Pico-Robertson deli in 1948. In 1969, Holocaust survivor Herman Markowitz bought the deli and ran it until he died in the ’70s. His daughters Suzee and Susan run the deli, which in May celebrated its 70th anniversary. Walking into the dining room is like walking through a time machine. Old movie posters and photos of celebrity visitors blanket the walls.

The latkes from Factor's Deli. (Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Behind the counter: Factor’s has one of its vendors prepare pastrami to its specifications, then they slow roast it at the restaurant for four to five hours. The bagels are from Bread Los Angeles in Montebello, and the rye bread is made using a special recipe by Beverlywood Bakery. And the restaurant double bakes it before it hits the table. Those Saran-wrapped black-and-white cookies out front also come from Beverlywood Bakery.
Order this: One of the best things at Factor’s comes free when you sit down. The sliced pickled cucumber salad with slivered white onion and sprigs of dill is the ideal counterpart to a fatty pastrami Reuben. And the chopped salads here are better than most, topped with things such as Muenster cheese and turkey or jicama and grilled corn. And they are served with a pair of silver tongs that will bring you right back to your grandma’s table.
9420 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 278-9175,
This is a modern deli, dreamed up by siblings Jonah and Amanda Freedman, who are from Canada. They were struck by inspiration while sitting at Langer’s two years ago. “How cool would it be if this was open until 10 p.m. and you could have a martini and good music?” asked Jonah. So the two opened their own deli, in an Echo Park strip mall, and developed a menu of re-imagined grandma deli classics with the help of chef Liz Johnson, who has since left the deli. And they introduced a full craft cocktail menu as well.

Cured sea trout pairs with a crispy potato latke at Freedman's.

Cured sea trout pairs with a crispy potato latke at Freedman's. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times

By JENN HARRIS JUL 19, 2018 

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