Artisan delis have popped up in Portland, New York and San Francisco in recent years with up-and-coming chefs riffing on their grandparents’ pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball — while cooking up an antidote to the Jewish deli’s widespread demise.
But the deli revolution hadn’t reached Los Angeles, at least not until now. Last week, chef Micah Wexler opened Wexler’s Deli, adding a swanky newcomer to L.A.’s list of venerable delicatessens, many of them decades old.
Wexler, 31, is known for the innovative Middle Eastern cuisine of his last restaurant, Mezze. But now he’s returning to his childhood roots — deli food.
“I wanted this place to be less about cheffy creativity and more about craftsmanship,” said Wexler, 31, wearing a denim apron over a white button-down shirt printed with “Wexler’s” in old-school cursive.
His 10-seat eatery inside the bustling Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles has been packed since the opening, serving up mainly sandwiches (your choice of pastrami, corned beef, roast turkey, egg salad or tuna salad) and bagels (topped with lox, smoked sturgeon, pastrami or cream cheese).
“I have a basic rule,” Wexler said of his cooking. “If we can’t make things at least as good as what’s out there, then we don’t do it.”
That’s a bold statement in a town that boasts traditional delis such as Langer’s, a 67-year-old eatery that Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold and “Save the Deli” author David Sax have called one of the country’s finest delis. Wexler, who grew up in the Valley, remembers eating there as a kid with his grandparents. It’s still his favorite deli.
Wexler has reason to be bold, though: He’s selecting quality ingredients and making almost everything in-house. Take, for example, the rye bread.
The recipe, which Wexler developed with Etchea Bakery, calls for 55 percent rye flour — 55 percent more than many commercial rye breads. Bakeries today often use just bread flour and toss in some caraway seeds, said Wexler, eliminating the tricky step of balancing rye with bread flour.
Wexler was adamant about “getting that rye back in there,” experimenting with more than 50 recipes over several months to achieve the ideal blend.
The final product has the darkness he wanted, along with a “hearty grain flavor.” And the “fluffy and spongy” interior is rimmed by what Wexler calls a “break-your-teeth kind of crust — super crusty and chewy,” since the loaves are baked on Etchea’s stone-hearth then re-baked at Wexler’s for 10 minutes at 400 degrees.
Sitting at the counter, you can watch Wexler hoist dark, round loaves onto the mechanical slicer. They look like the brown peasant bread your Russian grandmother would have eaten in the old country — the kind so heavy with rye, it weighed a ton. But Wexler’s bread which is sprinkled with just enough caraway is light and soft, at least until your teeth hit the crust. When your sandwich arrives, it comes on a brown paper tray as if to match the no-frills menu where even a pickle costs extra.
If you’re used to the bread at Langer’s, Wexler’s will taste extra-sour due to the abundance of rye. The sourness and chewiness are meant to complement the fatty, unctuous pastrami, said Wexler, helping to cut through the grease just like sauerkraut, pickles and mustard do.
Just two miles from Downtown’s Grand Central Market where Wexler has set up shop, Langer’s has been serving the same rye bread for some 40 years.
Owner Norm Langer said the bread, made by Fred’s Bakery, has the “proper amount of sour” and an ideal consistency.
“If I take the bread and bake it in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes, I get a hard, crispy crust with a soft center on it,” he said. “It gives you something to bite into, it’s not mushy, and it’s solid enough to hold the sandwich together.”
The double-baking technique originated in the early 1940s when Langer’s father, Al, had bread sent to his Palm Springs deli via Greyhound Bus. It always arrived a day old, so he stuck it in the oven one more time before serving — a strategy that has long outlasted its initial purpose.
Norm Langer said his sandwiches — especially the famous #19 with hot pastrami on rye bread with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and coleslaw — have been copied countless times.
Even Wexler is doing his version of the #19. The menu calls it the “MacArthur Park” sandwich in tribute to the neighborhood surrounding Langer’s.
“You can’t ask for a better recommendation than that,” said Langer.
Langer said that he thinks nouveau delis like Wexler’s are headed for success, especially with a hip crowd of 20- and 30-somethings. But he will stick with his decades-old traditional Jewish deli formula, catering to Downtown’s business people and politicians, local immigrant communities of Mexicans and Koreans, and multi-generational families coming from all over L.A.
“Will Wexler’s do a good job? I think they’ll do a fabulous job,” he said. “Am I worried? No.”
A recent Wexler’s lunch crowd included a couple with matching tattoo sleeves, two guys in plaid discussing business strategy, and a man with a bushy grey beard in an ankle-length purple robe wearing a large crucifix pendant. Another customer took one look at the neon sign and exclaimed, “Wexler’s? My name’s Wexler, too!”
Bob Dylan and Kanye West boomed from speakers while Wexler sliced lox at the front counter of his 350-square-foot open kitchen. At Mezze, the chef gave Angelenos couscous topped with sea urchin and roasted peaches spread with honey and zaatar. Now he is relishing the chance to share his family’s comfort foods.
As Wexler put it, “Deli food has become like soul food for a lot of people.”
Photos by Daina Beth Solomon