Some people think “California Cuisine” refers to garnishes of baby carrots and striped beets, others to great canisters of protein shakes and platefuls of mashed yeast. The historically minded might point out chop suey or the fish stew cioppino as famous dishes invented here, or the checked-shirt Sunset Magazine patio-grill cuisine du dad lifestyle as the American Dream paradigm to which the rest of the world aspires. Snide people in France just think California is menu code for kiwi, the way that “Argenteuil” means asparagus or “Nantua” means crayfish.
But of course, California--hey, even Los Angeles--has always had an indigenous folk cuisine that had little if anything to do with baby bok choy: taquitos ; tri-tip sandwiches; anything with chili on it, especially fries. Cobb salad came from Los Angeles; so did, supposedly, the French dip and the crab-avocado sushi roll. And what other city but Los Angeles could give birth to the phenomenon of Bad Pastrami? (Not “bad” as in bad, but “Bad” meaning “good.”) Bad Pastrami is everywhere. Bad Pastrami, grease and garlic, is life itself.
Los Angeles is, of course, home to the best pastrami sandwich in the nation, at Langer’s near MacArthur Park, but that’s a fluke, a random occurrence, not what we’re talking about here. There is the famous namesake dish at the Oki Dog, which includes chili, two hot dogs and a pickle along with the pastrami; the pastrami-filled Kosher Burrito near City Hall; the awful pastrami taco at a Montebello place that shall go unmentioned. (The secret: Any pastrami tastes pretty good in the company of pickles and yellow mustard.)
Burger stands in East L. A. pretty much all offer pastrami. I seem to remember a ‘60s bubble-gum group called the Pastrami Malted, but they probably weren’t from Los Angeles and they may have been called something else, and there’s no listing in the “Billboard Top 100" book between the Partridge Family and Les Paul.
Perhaps the ultimate Bad Pastrami experience in Los Angeles is the pastrami dip, which combines French dip form with Bad Pastrami function, pungent ethnic excess structured like a genteel downtown businessman’s lunch. The Hat is pastrami-dip paradise on the Eastside; on the Westside it’s Johnnie’s Pastrami. They are both pretty good places to feel like an Angeleno.
The Hat, which seems to be the only remaining Anglo business in a resolutely Asian section of Alhambra, a bit of neon in a sea of Chinese script, is crowded morning and night, renowned for its chili fries, famous for the cheapest cup of coffee in the San Gabriel Valley: only 15 cents. The hamburger’s not bad. The fries are hot and crisp.
The Hat’s pastrami--"World-Famous Pastrami"--is steamed until it is extremely tender, then sliced paper-thin, prosciutto-thin, thin enough to read through, then stacked pretty high on a gravy-soaked, tough-crusted roll. The pickles and mustard are put on automatically, which saves you the trouble of the roll possibly falling apart in your hands as you apply garnish. The sandwich is also cut in half--each half is wrapped individually, then wrapped together as a whole. You might wish for better bread; you might ask for pastrami with a smokier tang, but a Hat sandwich is sure convenient to eat.
“What Is Pastrami?” asks the menu at Johnnie’s. “Our Pastrami Is Beef Which Has Been Cured and Flavored With Costly Spices and then Smoked to Perfection.”
Johnnie’s is a cool, ancient, ‘50s-style restaurant on a strip of cool ‘50s-style motels, all slanted roof and giant windows, jutting angles and garish neon. Inside, you can slide into a booth and blast Ozzy and Dino all night from the tabletop juke. Outside, you can cluster around a fire pit and feel as if you’re in a Frankie Avalon movie (though the after-midnight customers look more like Jodie Foster’s buds in “Foxes”). Nobody in town does a frostier Coke, with real old-fashioned chipped ice. Nobody has more motherly waitresses.
The pastrami is sort of stringy here, but with a good, garlicky flavor; the roll is toasted before it’s dipped, so there’s a nicely crisp textural contrast around the edges. You have to apply your own mustard, which is all right because the bun is sturdier, and though the pickles don’t fit on the sandwich--they’re big chunks of crunchy kosher dills, served deli-style in crocks--it doesn’t really matter. It is the best Bad Pastrami sandwich in town.
1 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (818) 282-0140 (and three other locations). Open Sunday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Pastrami for two, food only, $8. Other locations: Lake at Villa, Pasadena; Atlantic at Riggin, Monterey Park; 11th at Central, Upland.
4017 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, (310) 397-6654. Open Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Cash only. Beer and wine. Takeout. Pastrami for two, food only, $10.50.