Back in elementary school, while other moms were humming away happily in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, my Mom was dragging us to the Country Club, setting us down in the Clubhouse Cafe with our homework, and running off to sweep the Ladies’ Tournament. When she came back victorious (her badass athletic ability, unfortunately never expressed itself in my gene pool), we would put away our pseudo-Sanrio pencil boxes that are cool now because everything-Asian-is-trendy, but sorely embarassing back when it was “oriental.” We would have lunch, and since Mom was Mom and didn’t know what normal American children ate for lunch, she would order pastrami Reubens for us. I was seven years old, eating a pastrami Reuben.
I never ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich until I was old enough to babysit the neighbors’ kids and made them there. The sandwich of my yute is a pastrami Reuben, piled high with pastrami, exploding with sauerkraut probably because it reminded Mom of kimchee, and drenched in a secret sauce that at the time, was just “secret sauce.” Now I know it’s Russian dressing.
I found my yute at Langer’s, but not the pastrami Reuben.
Sometime during 1972 (which is still way before my time, mind you), or possibly earlier, one of the waitresses at Langer’s tripped over a wire in the stockroom while searching for A-1 on the back shelf and unplugged Langer’s from the electric circuitry of progress. Life all around Langer’s progressed. Rather, time progressed, and the environment, sadly, regressed.
(So yes, the 1970s was my yute, but don’t try to guess how old I am. My birthday is coming up and I am sensitive and cranky about it. Let's get back to Langer's, shall we?)
Alvarado and 7th in LA is MacArthur Park. I might get a rusty nail thrown my way for saying this, but MacArthur Park isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s ugly, scary, ghetto-ville. UGH-lee. I don't mean to be offensive if you live in or around MacArthur Park, but hell, if you live in or around MacArthur Park, you’re actually homeless, so how did you find your way to my laptop?!?
We went to Langer’s for lunch, partly because the pastrami Reuben of my yute is associated with lunch, and partly because Langer’s closes before dinner. I am not absolutely sure why Langer’s closes at 4 pm, but I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that no one in her right mind would hang out in and around the area of Langer’s after dark. Besides, why would Langer’s stay open that late? Langer’s is frozen in an era when people didn’t go out for dinner because everyone was at home gathered around the dinner table eating pot roast and listening to the Ed McMahon Show on the radio. Or something vaguely anachronistic like that. Hey, don’t ask me. I never choose “pink” or “brown” on Trivial Pursuit.
Langer’s is in Los Angeles, but there is no valet parking. Crazy, huh? Normally, I hate valet parking. Yes, yes, I could say that I am “uncomfortable” with other people being in my car, or that I “don’t trust other people with my precious car,” but the truth of the matter is, I’m cheap. I’d rather spend that $12, tax and tip included, on a cocktail, tax and tip not included, because like I said, this is LA. However, at Langer’s, valet parking would have been nice. It was a little scary parking the big shiny luxury sports car (obviously, not mine) in the lot a block away and then walking to the restaurant through the throngs of scarypeople. Then again, I’m not sure how much I’d trust my car with the valet in MacArthur Park.
When we walked into Langer’s, it was like I had just walked into that same Clubhouse Cafe back in 1981. (Don’t do the math! Don’t do it!) The decor was all-out late '70s, early '80s Denny's-before-their-rebranding-as-a-Diner brown – dark wood veneer everywhere, brown pleather booth seating, faux wood formica topped tables, tiny beige lampshades on the ceilng lights that hang from popcorn-textured ceiling tiles. It must have been the same waitstaff too, only back then, they were hot young 30 year olds (30 is young. it is, okay?). Now they're, well - you do the math.
We squeaked our butts across the vinylicious seat of a booth against a window that faces Alvarado. Through the carved Colonial drumstick railing, and just over the faux decorative ivy, I could see the landscape of the park. I quickly turned my attention back to the task at hand - the menu.
Truly, investigating Langer's menu is a task because it is huge, just like every other deli's menu. There are sandwiches, of course, plus soups, salads, deli-style entrees like liver and onions, steaks, breakfast eggs, etc. For sandwiches, rather than simply listing each of the available breads, meats, cheeses, and other adornments for sandwiches (which they do anyway), Langer's has created a number of typical combinations, which they call the "numbered combinations." Number 19 is highlighted as the popular choice - pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing. Number 19, however, is not a pastrami Reuben. Close, but no cigar. I scanned the offerings and there was nothing on the menu called a "pastrami Reuben." In fact, there was nothing called "Reuben" at all.
Where is the Pastrami Reuben of My Yute?
Good question, but the real question that burned in my mind is...
Why do the Numbered Combinations skip? What happened to combinations #12 through #18? There are whole series of nine numbers that are missing. There's a #55 - Corned Beef with Cole Slaw and Russian Style Dressing, but then nothing for nine numbers until #65 - Hot Pastrami with Cream Cheese and Sliced Tomato. Where are #56 through #64? What were they? Were they just thrown out because no one liked them? Was Hot Tongue with A-1 and Anchovies just a passing idea? Did Langer's really have 89 numbered sandwiches at one point?!?! I want to know what all my options could have been, and Langer's snatched them away from me before I even had the chance.
The closest Langer's comes to the Pastrami Reuben of My Yute is #44 - Hot Pastrami, Sauerkraut and Nippy Cheese Grilled on Rye. I had to wonder...Did the Pastrami of My Yute used to be there, as #43 or perhaps #45, and someone just decided to strip it off the menu to play with my emotions? And what the hell is Nippy Cheese?
Our server, who really should be called a waitress (because back then they were waitresses and stewardesses, not servers and flight attendants), explained that Nippy cheese is American cheese. I recoiled in horror and empathetic shame for Langer's. American cheese on a hot pastrami sandwich is blasphemy. I asked for #44 with Swiss cheese and a side of Russian dressing. Langer's doesn't have a pastrami Reuben so I have to make it myself.
The sandwich came out and at first glance, I had hope that my ISO had come to an end. The bread had been buttered and grilled dark and crunchy, like a crouton on the outside. I pulled the two halves apart and they clung to each other through a single thread of melted Swiss cheese. It was promising. I opened the sandwich and like an albino with SPF 50 getting ready for beach volleyball, I slathered the Russian dressing all over the cheese that had welded itself onto the bread, into every fatty, grisly nook and cranny of the thickly cut, peppery pastrami. It was ready. I was ready. I took a bite.
It wasn't bad. Unfortunately, it also was not The Pastrami of My Yute. The sandwich had been piled high, not necessarily with pastrami, but with a little too much sauerkraut. Too much sauerkraut for someone who eats pickled, fermented cabbage on a regular basis? It means that there was way too much. I had to remove some of the 'kraut. For some reason, cheese on both slices of bread didn't seem enough, and I realized that the balance had been thrown off because the pastrami was sliced too thickly for my personal, picky tastes. I also am never adverse to fatty meat, so I find it hard to believe that someone who plucks up the chicken skin and eats it, leaving the meat behind, is writing this, but the pastrami was unusually fatty.
Langer's was, in the end, just okay. The restaurant itself took me back to my Clubhouse days, but the sandwich, sadly, disappointed. And as deeply frozen in a faraway era as Langer's is, the prices have jettisoned at warp speed to 2010. The pastrami Reuben was almost 12 dollars. Add tax, tip, gas mileage from the Westside, and of course, the emotional damages of MacArthur Park, and I think I'll go back to Johnnie's Pastrami. Or maybe try The Hat.
704 South Alvarado
Los Angeles, CA 90057
** a year ago today, reader david guest-blogs about dduk from san soo dang **