Langer's Thrives in a Changing Neighborhood : Deli Serves Up Pastrami and Comfort

Times Staff Writer

Push open the heavy glass doors that shield Langer's delicatessen from the teeming city. Ease into a brown vinyl booth and listen, for a moment, to the voices of Los Angeles.

Two businessman slouch at a table, talking bluntly of mergers and football. An elderly man, hunched protectively over the edge of a counter, slurps matzo ball soup.

At a broad banquette, two middle-aged Latino women idly mop excess ketchup with the few stray French fries left on their plates. They chatter in animated Spanish, until a former neighbor approaches with news.

Since they saw each other last, the newcomer says, she has lost her husband.

"I can do anything I want," she half boasts, putting the best face on things.

"Take a vacation," says one of the women. "Get the best of life."

"Honey, I'm 72 years old! I've got a bad hip!" the newcomer chortles. Her straight gray hair peeks out from under a curly, ash-blonde wig. Her ribbed sweater and knit pants are neat but worn. The strap of her dark green pocketbook is wrapped twice around her wrist, an old woman's best defense against a purse snatcher.

"I never thought that I'd live that long that I couldn't manage for myself," she says suddenly, softly.

"Take care of yourself," her seated friend insists.

The newcomer's eyes brighten girlishly. "If I don't, nobody else will," she says, and hobbles determinedly out the door.

Welcome to Langer's. Its operators and customers alike boast of the sweet corned beef and the pungent pastrami, which do indeed draw crowds from around the world. But alongside those delicacies, Langer's serves equal portions of comfort and poignancy.

From its perch on the corner of 7th and Alvarado streets, just across from MacArthur Park near downtown, it has kept watch for almost 40 years over this changing city, catching a front-row view as its neighborhood moved from middle-income Jewish to lower-income Latino.

The city can careen wildly about, its populations shift and meld, but Langer's remains constant, almost defiantly plodding along at its own pace and delivering whatever people want, from gefilte fish at $6.75 to a little human contact, no charge.

When the morning rush has subsided and Art Levkovitz can step away to a secluded booth in the back, the 24-year Langer's counterman sips coffee and talks about what draws people here.

"You give them a good product, good service," said Levkovitz, who has spent 50 of his 62 years in the deli business. "They come in, and over a period of years they feel at home. They live by themselves. If they went to other restaurants, they're strangers. Here, they're friends."

Its beginnings were less than auspicious. Consider Al Langer's first move when, armed with $500 cash and several thousands in loans, he took over a sandwich shop on Alvarado Street just south of 7th Street.

He kicked out the customers.

They were bookies. Daily, they had filled the 20-odd seats and more, from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m., talking some and spending excessively. Langer decided they were bad for business--although they were the only business.

"Who else was going to come in the place? Nobody! They'll see the place is jammed; they're not going to come in. And then you got a reputation as a bookie joint!" Langer said.

So he tossed them out.

Such unbridled stubbornness marked Langer from age 6, when he went to work on the streets of his native Newark, N.J., selling ice cones, flavored shaved-ice desserts. He decided then and there that it made sense to work only for himself.

Six years later, economics overrode that principle but introduced him to his life's work. His mother, mindful of the cost of her son's upcoming bar mitzvah, sent him to work behind the counter in a local deli. "It cost $35 to get bar mitzvahed," he said, shrugging. "I've been in and out of it ever since."

After high school, he worked the deli circuit--the Catskills in the summer, Miami Beach in the winter. It left him with an advanced education in the restaurant trade and the endearing if slightly quirky tendency to offer up true-life anecdotes like vaudeville jokes. ("A guy calls up and says, 'Al, I need 100 corned beef sandwiches,' " begins one.)

In 1937, following his tailor father and housewife mother, he came to California, spent a year running a store in Palm Springs, then came to Los Angeles.

It was a sparkling time, when up-scale delicatessens were the counterparts of today's trendy bistros, when all the stars in the movie industry galaxy would show up at places like the Gotham on Hollywood Boulevard.

Langer worked behind the counter at Lack's deli in Hollywood, near what was the Warner Bros. Theater. He stayed there long enough to marry the waitress, Jean, and save up money to buy the concession stand at a bowling alley on Hollywood Boulevard near Cherokee Avenue.

There followed a small shop on 8th and Irolo streets, near the Ambassador Hotel. He had sold off that deli when, in June, 1947, he heard that a pair of German immigrants were selling their place on Alvarado. They wanted $21,500. Langer asked a German friend to look it over.

"He stayed here three days and chewed 'em down to $14,200!" he recounted, blue eyes dancing with glee.

Loans Repaid in 14 Months

With $500 in cash, Langer went begging. Loans came in from the fish store and the meat wholesaler, and from the baker as well. He and Jean worked 16-hour days, aided only by a dishwasher. Within 14 months, the loans were paid off.

The store--its tiny front emblazoned with a huge "Langer's Delly" sign--was a magnet in those days for the newly arrived Jewish citizens of Los Angeles.

"The Jewish people when they came here came to those boarding houses, the hotels, the small ones," he said the other day, gesturing out the broad windows across MacArthur Park.

"They come here to decide where they were going to live. They going to move to the Westside? They going to move to Boyle Heights? They come here; they use the park as their living room. They rent a hotel room and then they'd be out in the living room, in the park, all day."

And their meals were taken at Langer's, where a corned beef sandwich cost a mere 35 cents.

The reputation grew, enough so that in 1953 Al Langer bought out the liquor store next door and expanded. In 1967, when the bank on the corner of 7th and Alvarado closed its doors, he took over that space as well, gutting the three sites and installing the fixtures that exist today.

Neighborhood Changes

The inside has remained the same, but the world just outside Langer's door has changed drastically. Apartment houses that once sheltered Jewish immigrants now house Latino families struggling against poverty. Virtually every nearby business advertises in Spanish, from the Sonora Casa Musical from which Latin music blares incessantly to the Pollo Veloz--"Speedy Chicken"--restaurant across Alvarado from Langer's.

Although residents are trying to change the image, MacArthur Park has become tainted by violence and drug peddling that spill over into the rest of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood's changes have stifled Langer's business, at least at night. The deli opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes at 1 a.m., but the nighttime hours are desolate. Most of Langer's customers work downtown, and at night they have returned to their suburban homes. The few customers who live nearby avoid walking around after dark.

"The people that come here for lunch eat (dinner) on the Westside or eat in the Valley," he said. "That's why my night business is down. That's why I close all holidays."

But spare no pity for Langer's. More than 1,500 people still come through its doors each day, enough to pay 47 employees and send Al and Jean on occasional cruises. A Metro Rail station will be built a half-block away, raising hope for even more business down the road.

The backbone of the operation escaped the neighborhood's changes unscathed. The backbone is food.

"Hot rye bread." Al Langer slaps his hand on the counter of table 33, where he spends most days. "It's one of the secrets of success."

"The first bite, when you bite into a sandwich, you bite into the hot crispy rye bread, you've got them right away--before they even hit the meat, you've got them!" he crows, his triumphant New Jersey accent undiluted by 50 years in California.

For a man who seems unpretentious--he still lives in the house he bought in West Los Angeles in 1950 with the wife he married five years earlier--he is brimmingly confident about his deli. Give him a minute and he will explain in excruciating detail how to prepare corned beef, how to steam pastrami to ensure its flavor and how to hand-cut it--when everyone else, mind you, machine-cuts theirs.

A National Reputation

He is not the only one who boasts about his food. Rave reviews have earned Langer's a national reputation. A blown-up framed copy of a congratulatory New York Times review hangs in the window, a gift from a regular.

"When this came out, people came from the airport in a cab. They came from New York, took a cab and they told me, they walked in and they said, a'We've read about you, now prove it,' " Langer recounts excitedly.

"We did. They were never disappointed."

For all the out-of-town visitors, however, it is largely the natives who fill the deli booths at breakfast and at lunch--the businessmen and women, the families, the lonely elderly in search of a warm bowl of soup and a friendly nod.

There is a sound familiarity in the old-fashioned, pointed paper cups the busboys fill with water, in the subtle hiss of the grill, in the ever-present whiff of pastrami and the cheery greetings of waitresses whose favorite salutation is "sweetie."

Mornings, it is a place to wake up leisurely, sipping coffee and passing the newspaper neighbor to neighbor.

"We have a lot who come in and we just go ahead and order for them," said Beverly Swanson, a waitress at Langer's for 15 years.

"Some people don't like to talk in the morning. Some don't really want to be bothered. You learn to recognize this," she said.

Al Langer has gradually turned over day-to-day control of the deli to his son, Norm, 42. But he still spends most days there, visiting friends or keeping watch over catering orders. The longest stretch he spent away from the deli was last summer, when heart bypass surgery knocked him off his feet for a few months. Now he's back.

"I don't have to be here; I don't have to work," he said, grinning. "People like to play golf? I like to play here."

It might have been tempting to move out when the neighborhood declined, but Al Langer never did, and now the name and the place are wed. Seventy-four next January, he has spent most of his life on Alvarado, and so too have many customers.

"It's fascinating," he said. "They come in as children, they get married and they bring in their children. And the older people that used to come in, they disappear. Little by little, they're gone--you don't know where they are. They passed away."

'Best Pastrami in Town'

But many still return, like the four business associates who gathered at Langer's one recent morning to plot sales strategy. One man--obviously the breakfast organizer--nodded seriously as the other three unfurled computer print-outs. "They've got the best pastrami in town," he said. "Better than New York."

He paused, then pitched the fastball. "Better," he said, "than Brooklyn ."

And then there is Mike, a painter who started dining at Langer's in the mid-1960s, when he was an art student.

Now, he stops by each morning for breakfast before heading to the house-painting jobs that pay the rent and give him money to indulge in "inner landscapes," oil paintings he composes in his downtown studio.

He won't give his full name, but proudly calls himself "a fixture" at Langer's. Like a salesman on commission, he praises the hand-sliced pastrami, the omelets, the salmon and eggs. Scratch the surface, and there's more to the deli's appeal.

"One thing about Los Angeles--there's no sense of community," he said. "It's all little camps. . . . This is one of the few places where you can find it."

Then he pauses, and looks straight ahead. "Living alone like I do . . . it's lonely eating by myself. That's why I come here."

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