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SoCal's Longstanding Pastrami Obsession

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On Santa Monica Boulevard near La Brea in the West Hollywood Gateway complex, sandwich emporium Mendocino Farms touts its artisanal, small-batch pastrami made in collaboration with a culinary outfit known as Ugly Drum. The brisket meat is smoked for twelve hours over pecan wood, the details of the rub ingredients predictably shrouded in some degree of secrecy, and the final result is fork-tender, thickly sliced meat consciously stacked in a particular way so as to achieve optimum fat-to-lean-meat distribution.

Instead of creamy cabbage and sliced cheese draped over the proteins, the slaw gets its tang from an apple cider-based vinegar marinade and a mustard dipping sauce that's been prepped to go with the Ugly Drum product. Such is the way Erik Black and Joe Marcos, two cooks who've clocked time in distinguished kitchens including Rustic Canyon, Osteria Mozza, and the erstwhile Spice Table, have presented their pastrami sandwich on a traveling circuit around Mendocino Farms locations. Soft caraway-loaded rye comes from Drago Bakery, rather from a source that's been cranking out crisped loaves on which to pile intense, funky meats for decades. Pastrami sandwich aficionados might deride the sandwich as catering to soft West Coast palates. It's arguably a gold standard sample, albeit a politely mannered one, which to some die-hards, might boast a level of technical precision that in turn lacks a certain ineffable soul.

Fast casual restaurants such as Mendocino Farms and Wexler's are revisiting old world pastrami curing and smoking techniques from start-to-finish without the intervention of any other large-scale purveyors. (As much as we're loathe to admit a lag time of culinary crazes reaching Los Angeles, small-batch, back-to-basics, updated deli does seem to be a trend that was kicked off in other American cities, including New York.) Many more restaurants, ranging from Langer's to the Oinkster, are also making their own famous versions using proprietary blends in collaboration with Burbank-based food supplier RC Provision.

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But to get a taste of an iconic union of meat-and-bread that's reflective of our region's taste, however, travel a mere one-and-a-half-miles from Mendocino Farms in West Hollywood to Oki Dog on Fairfax, home of the notorious pastrami-loaded hot dog burrito, or to the Stamos family's Capitol Burger on Pico near Crenshaw. After all, crouching down in front of a grimy window attached to a little vernacular roadside building -- ideally with a weathered vintage atomic age-inspired neon sign standing proudly by -- to order a pile of thin-sliced meat loaded on a French roll, or within the walls of another local chain such as the Hat, is also typical of how L.A. eats its pastrami.

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To some non-native eyes, the visible presence of pastrami in unlikely neighborhoods is yet another Southern Californian curiosity. "But even if most Jews left Boyle Heights long ago, their pastrami lives on as their culinary legacy," Dvora Myers wrote in Tablet magazine last year. In the article, Myers traces how targeted policies, most significantly real estate redlining by banks in collaboration with governmental housing agencies, led to a geographic dispersal of white ethnic residents and Boyle Heights' once-robust Jewish community, among other groups. (Internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, already had a devastating impact on the area.) This is a familiar story in neighborhoods across Los Angeles, and in all major American cities. This movement went both ways; while Jews decamped from parts of the city, they brought pastrami and their tastes to new swaths of L.A.

And yet spiced and smoked meat managed to transcend ethnicity. In the post-World War II era, factors such as buildings designed to accommodate the automobile, economic prosperity, and increasingly mechanized food supply chain dovetailed to create what became a distinct burger and fast food culture. Southern California's demographics and multicultural palate meant that pastrami started to occupy a prominent place in the mainstream. According to Micah Wexler of Wexler's Deli, Jewish deli food, and different approaches to pastrami in particular, are "all kinds of comfort food from different cultures that have become L.A. comfort food." Its ubiquity, however, doesn't equal knowledge among the general eating public. "Pastrami is always fascinating to me because people love it, but they don't have a clue what it comes from," explained Neil Strawder of Big Mista's BBQ. "All they know is, you slice it, and throw it on my burrito. It's like the meat that's behind bacon that you can use in everything."

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Pastrami is not a consistent or cohesive delicacy; save for a generally smoky and peppery flavor profile, many expressions of pastrami have little else in common. "Deli style," for instance, typically refers to meat located at the brisket's navel end, while L.A. fast food style is another (and is more likely to come from much lesser grade beef). Comparing what's served at Wexler's, Mendocino Farms, and Langer's to what Vienna Beef distributes to its restaurant clients is akin to likening Arby's sandwiches to Lawry's hand-carved meats and tableside service. Pastrami, and particularly the French dip sandwich, is arguably a convenient way to mask inferior quality meat that's been injected with polysyllabic components rather than brined and cured for a considerable amount of time with what Johnnie's Pastrami in Culver City declares to be "costly spices."

"I grew up eating pastrami and eating at those kind of places, like Jim's, Pete's Blue Chip," said chef and restaurateur Andre Guerrero, who first encountered it as a child in San Francisco soon after his family immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. "After work, my dad would stop at a corner drug store, and we lived on Geary Street right near downtown. There was this old Jewish guy who owned the drug store, and there was a little diner counter. My dad would always buy a slab of it, and he'd bring it home, I remember it was wrapped in white paper. Something about that smell really imprinted in my memory." It was an obsession with pastrami later in life that led him to open the modern-day "slow fast food" joint in an A-frame building that for decades had been a Jim's location in Eagle Rock.

Whether thinly or thickly sliced, on French rolls, rye bread, or atop other foodstuffs, Pastrami's many unconventional uses fit into the region's broader culture. "We're a little more experimental here, so it doesn't faze us to have some chili cheese fries with pastrami on it," Strawder said. "We do stuff like that. We don't put stuff into little boxes." But that doesn't mean pastrami isn't to be taken very seriously. If you ask a self-identified pastrami connoisseur in Los Angeles about the topic, be prepared to tangle with his or her worldview.

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