Taste Testing Los Angeles' Top Three Pastrami Sandwiches
By Heather Dunsmoor
Having lived in NYC for the better part of a decade, I'd like to think I know my way around a good pastrami sandwich. It should be the perfect balance of salty, peppery, and smoky. It should be succulent and moist, but not wet or greasy. And the rye should be flavorful enough to lend character to the sandwich. Some people take it with mustard, some with Russian dressing, some like Swiss cheese or cole slaw—some want it all, while others prefer it naked. With all these personal tastes there can never be a true universal winner, but that didn't stop me from wanting to find my own platonic ideal.
I started my sampling journey at Wexler’s, which was unlike anything I ever had in NYC. After I tried it out, many friends informed me that Langer’s is even better. Even more argued that if I were going to try Langer’s then I absolutely must try Canter’s.
Langer's is routinely compared to New York's finest (Katz's), and Jonathan Gold has even said it's better, but if you don't trust an Angeleno, note that Nora Ephron's called it the "the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world." She wrote in The New Yorker in 2002: "If it were in New York, it would be a shrine, with lines around the block and tour buses standing double-parked outside."
Canter's and Langer's are crosstown rivals often compared as well—and they even share some of the same employees. While Wexler's is the new kid on the block, it's received rave reviews since it opened last year and made all the year-end lists. Below, join me on my quest to compare L.A.’s most hyped and most legendary deli pastramis.
Serving pastrami since: 1931
Located at: 419 N Fairfax Avenue, Beverly Grove
Ordered: Brooklyn Downtowner, Pastrami, swiss cheese, cole slaw, Russian dressing on rye, $13.75
Canter’s is gigantic and looks like a classic diner, with assorted deli counters, multiple rooms, and a sizable lunch crowd. It was busy when we entered, but there was no wait and we were able to get a booth right away.
The pastrami sandwich arrives and is of medium size—if I were Goldilox and Langer’s, Wexler’s, and Canter’s were the 3 bears, this sandwich would be “just right.”
The Russian dressing is so bland I had to check to make sure it was on there. The pastrami itself is excellent—thick cut and the perfect amount of saltiness, and not-too-fatty. However, it's not quite as flavorful as Wexler’s. The rye bread, though, this is the stuff dreams are made of. Moist and bursting with flavor and the most amazing crunchy crust I’ve ever experienced. I never even knew I liked rye that much until I bit into this sandwich, so thank you Canter’s.
The takeaway: I left satisfied but not heavy-feeling. Bonus points for being open 24 hours, no wonder this is a legendary spot to hit in the wee morning hours.
Serving pastrami since: 1947
Located at: 704 S Alvarado Street, Westlake
Ordered: #19 Pastrami, Swiss cheese, cole slaw, Russian dressing on rye, $15.95
Arriving at Langer’s, we gave the hostess our name and were placed in a queue on the sidewalk outside. Oh how very New York! Others were pulling up to the sidewalk and getting orders delivered directly into their cars. Oh how very L.A.!
After a surprisingly short wait in a very long line, we were ushered in. With its old time charm, I’m assuming this room hasn’t changed much in the almost 70 years they’ve been open.
The legendary #19 arrived on a plate—it is gigantic in width but normal in girth. The rye bread is pretty good, but so moist it almost feels wet. The pastrami is relatively fatty—I’m pretty sure if I squeezed this sandwich I could get a fair amount of grease out of it. I love salt, but this is a little too salty, and there’s not much tang or flavor to the Russian dressing.
The takeaway: This pastrami is good enough, but the overwhelming salt taste doesn’t leave my mouth for hours after. I feel bad—I know so many people love it, and I wanted to love it, it just didn’t do it for me.
Serving pastrami since: 2014
Located at: 317 S. Broadway Street, Inside Grand Central Market Downtown
Ordered: “Macarthur Park” Pastrami, cole slaw, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing on rye, $12
Located inside the bustling Grand Central Market, Wexler’s is a stand right in the middle resembling a classic NYC deli counter, complete with subway tiles, baskets of Zapp’s chips, and stacks of black & white cookies. During the lunch rush, lines of suited types wrap around the stand and seats are incredibly difficult to come by. (Note: arriving in an off-hour remedies all of that.)
The pastrami comes on a tray lined with butcher paper and is significantly smaller than the other 2 reviewed here (it also costs less). The rye bread is good, but it's not Canter's Rye. The meat is cut thickly and is the least fatty and greasy of the 3—it has the perfect amount of smokiness, saltiness, and flavor. There's not a hint of dryness to it. The Russian dressing isn’t very noticeable, but all is forgiven because biting into this sandwich makes my eyes roll into the back of my head. Every bite feels as if it's melting in my mouth—this pastrami is so tender you hardly have to chew.
The takeaway: I have decided that the meat in this one sandwich is the definition of perfection. I savor each bite as if it is my last and I leave feeling satisfied but not stuffed.
LA's Ultimate Deli Pastrami Hack: Get some Canter's rye, some Wexler's pastrami, and there's got to be the perfect Russian dressing somewhere out there, right? That combo might just beat any version NYC has to offer.
Heather Dunsmoor is a part-time pastrami-enthusiast and a full-time realtor and you can visit her at thegoodlifeLA.com