Micah Wexler first came to attention as the chef at Mezze, up in the old Sona space on La Cienega Boulevard, and in his stint at the short-lived restaurant he redefined what Middle Eastern food might be, garnishing braised tripe with nuggets of crunchy falafel, drizzling labneh onto foie gras and splashing manti with spiced almond milk. It was only after several months that a lot of people realized his inspiration was at least as deeply rooted in Jewish cooking as it was in the cuisines of Israel's neighbors, and his delicatessen Sundays, based on the food he grew up eating in Los Angeles, were sold out long in advance.
So it perhaps makes sense that he opened Wexler's Deli in the newly revivified Grand Central Market downtown, a delicatessen reborn in a civic space that hasn't seen decent pastrami in years.
The deli, which opened just this spring, looks as if it has been part of the market since the early 1950s, chubby neon sign, battered counter and all. The menu is spelled out with plastic letters on an old-fashioned signboard. The primary decorative element is a wooden étagère bearing rows of pickle jars, bagels threaded onto metal rods and mustard. The array of coolers, giant smokers and the carving counter is as tightly arranged as it would be in the galley of a ship, and it is extraordinary to see how much food comes out of such a tiny space.
A couple of years ago, we saw Wexler design the deli program at the since-retooled Umamicatessen, where he attempted to redefine the aesthetic of the Los Angeles pastrami sandwich with well-steamed pastrami in the tradition of Langer's but served in juicy, thick-cut slabs. The sandwich never quite surpassed the work of the masters, but it was good enough to be a contender in any serious discussion of Los Angeles pastrami.
Now at Wexler's, he has determined to up his game. The rye bread, baked to his specifications at a local bakery, has a much higher percentage of rye flour than you'll find at any other deli in town, which gives it a slightly sweet, musky quality, a certain density and an oddly fragile quality that can sometimes cause it to disintegrate when the meat is especially juicy.
Wexler's is the only deli I know that actually makes its pastrami on-site: curing the beef belly, smearing it with a crumbly spice paste that includes black pepper and clove, smoking it at a low temperature and then steaming it to tenderness. It is hand-cut to order into thick, bulletproof slabs and layered evenly rather than manipulated into a girthy wedge.
The pastrami is perhaps less consistent than the high-quality industrial product places like Langer's and Art's tend to use — it can be crumbly at times — but when it is right, which has been almost all the time lately, it is superb: yielding, succulent and almost impossibly rich; natural contours of the meat curling into the soft bread; the subtle tang of mustard; hints of smoke, garlic and clove.
The art of the sandwich master is perhaps not less than that of a sushi chef, and Wexler's other sandwiches, including the Reuben, the classically austere tuna salad and the MacArthur Park — a mélange of pastrami, cole slaw, Swiss cheese and sweet Russian dressing that is an obvious homage to Langer's fabled No. 19 — are carefully composed.
Wexler's is inexpensive — its sandwiches are at least a few dollars cheaper than their equivalents at Art's or Nate & Al's — and the sturgeon on a bagel, at $9, is among the better smoked-fish bargains in Los Angeles. The non-sandwich dishes are pretty much limited to cole slaw, pickles and eggy potato salad, which must be hard on the bottom line in an era when most delis' biggest sellers include cheeseburgers, matzo ball soup and Chinese chicken salad.
And the seating is on the bare side of minimal — you stand in line, place your order and hope that one of 10 stools at the counter open up or that you can find a seat at one of the communal tables shared by customers of the pizzeria or ice cream stand nearby.
But from your counter seat, you can observe the counterman make egg creams the old-fashioned way, by spritzing rapidly stirred cold milk and syrup with a jet of seltzer from a bottle. You can watch the cooks slice almost transparent slivers of house-smoked salmon and sturgeon to layer on cream-cheese-smeared bagels. (If there is a better version of lox and bagels in Los Angeles, I have yet to taste it, and the thinly sliced onion does nothing to detract from the lusciousness of the fish.)
Dessert? The idea is to get you in and out in a flash, and the new McConnell's ice cream stand is a quick bagel flip away. But if you insist, there's a black-and-white cookie for your delectation. You might want to save it for later.
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Wexler's Deli in Grand Central Market
Young blood invigorates the classic Jewish deli.
316 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 624-2378, wexlersdeli.com
Sandwiches, $8-$12; sides, $2-$4
Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Validated lot parking off Hill Street. Takeout.
Smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, corned beef, pastrami.