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A Changing of the Guard at Canter's

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Photos by Amparo Rios
Photos by Amparo Rios

Just inside Canter's Deli's front door, challah breads, bagels, babkas, strudels, rugelach, madelbrot, black & white cookies, and cakes fill the bakery shelves. Across the way the men who have run the deli department for decades are busily slicing meat and preparing sandwiches. Canter's Deli first opened in Jersey City before moving to Boyle Heights. The family then relocated to their current Fairfax Avenue location in 1952. The Canter family has made a name for themselves by serving their world famous corned beef piled high on seeded rye bread, hosting surprise performances by famous rockers in the Kibitz Room, and being open 24 hours a day (every day of the year except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

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Though owner Marc Canter has been part of his family's business since he was seventeen, outside the deli he's lived a decidedly more rock and roll life. Canter, a close childhood friend of Saul Hudson (more widely known as Slash), documented more than fifty Guns N Roses shows on the Sunset Strip. His son, Alex Canter, followed the family's rock music legacy becoming a keyboard player. How many kids can say they jammed with Slash at their bar mitzvah?

Running Canters is a multi-generational endeavor; the younger family members finds ways to honor the legacy while trying to find ways to keep up with the times. Inspired by his Alex's enthusiasm for the family business, this summer Marc has committed himself to updating their menu. The new version will highlight the customer's favorites, weed out some rarely ordered items like peppered beef, and add new dishes, like more than a dozen new panini-style melts.

In addition to the new sandwiches, the Canter's menu will now also feature new breakfast items including chocolate chip banana pancakes, four Benedicts, and three egg sandwiches. There are three new salads including a wedge, a caprese, and spinach with feta and roasted almonds. Marc Canter is excited about three burger options, all served on their house-made Kaiser buns. There will be the Hawaiian with grilled pineapple, the Black & Blue with bacon (yup, bacon), blue cheese, and red onion, and a pastrami burger topped with sautéed onions, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and of course, pastrami.

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On a sunny summer afternoon in the bustling restaurant, both father and son juggled a packed house, an inspector, and our questions.

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Julie: Alex, when did you start working here?
Alex: I started working here when I was about 15 years old. I was trained in the deli, the cashier, the bakery, and then waiter, which is what I have been working at recently. I go to University of Wisconsin-Madison. When I come home from college in the summers now, I have been waiting tables.

Julie: You created a new cocktail menu too?
Alex: The newer delis in Hollywood like Kitchen 24 are focusing on their bars and nightlife. Since we are open 24 hours, we want to focus on not only our food but also the whole atmosphere of being here. Our customers can order cocktails in the Kibitz Room and in the deli. I worked on creating things that complement the food.

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Julie: Why is 2012 the right time to update the menu?
Alex: The goal is to give our customer more options. Deli food tends to be expensive. You go almost anywhere to a deli and a reuben will cost about $15 or $16 - so our goal was to introduce newer items that keep up with what is happening in Hollywood and all around LA, like panini-style melts are very popular - and is less expensive than an old time deli sandwich. It's also better for the late night crowd.

Julie: Marc, how old were you when you first started working here?
Marc: I was seventeen.

Julie: What made you want to be part of running the family business?
Marc: I don't know, I guess it is in my DNA. It was a perfect match. I learned the business. I realized that I knew how to fix things that needed to be fixed. I understood how things work. At the time there were a lot of things that needed to be changed that were from the '50s and '60s.

Julie: What are you most likely to eat at work?
Alex: I feel like every time I am here I eat something different. I always try to create new things like ordering eggs Benedict on a potato pancake and other crazy combinations. I tried a fried egg in a reuben one day.

Julie: What has been your experience working together?
Marc: Basically he is kicking me in the ass, which is what I did to my dad. It was just time for a change I knew it, but I just wasn't enthused about it because it is difficult to make changes. After hearing what Alex and my cousin Dena Stein had to say about what we probably should be doing, I realized, I needed to light that fire.

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Julie: When will the new menu be printed?
Marc: We have the new panini melt menu now, and will print the entire new version of the menu by the end of the summer.

Julie: What items did you take off of the menu?
Marc: We took off the short ribs, a canned salmon dish, and a triple-decker sandwich that had tongue in it. We also got rid of the macaroni salad, a pita wrap, and peppered beef because is not as good as the pastrami and people keep ordering it by mistake.

Julie: What will you say to regular customers who kvetch about the changes?
Marc: If people complain, we will let them know that we needed the room for the newer items and those were the ones that we didn't really want people to order anyway. Some of the items we can still make for people if they ask. It's not the first time we took things off the menu.

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