Salvador Lopez, a waiter at Langer’s, has the routine down pat. After a hectic lunch shift serving sandwiches on rye at the pastrami mecca next to MacArthur Park, he negotiates a series of surface streets -- up Normandie, across Beverly -- to make his way into the Fairfax district.
He beelines into the locker room of another renowned Jewish deli, shedding the signature Langer’s bow tie for a tight-fitting black T-shirt that reads: I ♥ Canter’s.
Lopez is not a delicatessen double agent, funneling trade secrets on Russian dressing and blintzes. The 29-year-old is one of several waiters who openly works at two of the delis that compete for the title of Los Angeles’ best.
The delis’ unique shared employee pool speaks to the changing demographics of their neighborhoods. Langer’s, surrounded by drug dealers and vendors selling fake IDs, is open for lunch only. Canter’s, in a once-sleepy neighborhood now home to cafes and clubs, draws a younger crowd well into the wee hours.
Sharing workers makes sense, the deli owners say, because top talent is rare. A good waiter who understands the makings of a mean Reuben is hard to find.
“It has nothing to do at all with Canter’s and I getting along,” said Norm Langer, who took over running the deli from his late father. “It requires manual dexterity. It requires caring. It requires knowledge. Every sandwich is its own work of art.”
Los Angeles has many a top-notch deli, what with Art’s and Jerry’s and Brent’s and Nate’n Al.
Canter’s and Langer’s, Los Angeles fixtures for decades, are still owned by the families whose names grace their marquees.
Canter’s opened in the 1930s in Boyle Heights, when that neighborhood’s Jewish residents sought the meat-heavy, rye bread sandwiches popular on the East Coast. Over the years, in its present location on Fairfax Avenue, it has become a hangout for a mixed assortment of customers -- older Jews who show up for lunch and young hipsters who arrive after last call to nosh on knishes and noodle kugel.
Langer’s, which opened in the late 1940s, was long a haven for deli-lovers. But after the area got rougher in the 1980s and ‘90s, the restaurant began closing after dark.
The two delis are separated by miles of congested streets. Their competition has never been over customers, just bragging rights. In a way, Al Langer, the patriarch at Langer’s Deli, was the original dual employee. Not long after moving out west from Newark, N.J., he got a job as a deli man at Canter’s.
In 1947, he opened his own deli, kitty-corner from MacArthur Park. His spot soon made a splash with his cuts of pastrami edged with peppered fat, stacked between slices of double-baked rye -- warm and soft inside, crunchy on the outside. On his way out of Los Angeles last year, former LAPD (and NYPD) Chief William J. Bratton praised Langer’s corned beef, declaring it better than New York’s.
Talking over the jazz floating out of the Kibitz Room -- Canter’s small music venue -- longtime manager Bella Haig (whose own daughter works at Langer’s) can hardly finish a sentence without pointing out a waiter who has worked at both delis.
“He worked at Langer’s. This guy used to work at Langer’s too!” she says. “That’s a former Langer’s employee. He got tired of it.”
“Short-lived!” the waiter shouted back.
The waiters who currently work at both restaurants are understandably reluctant to say which one they like better, not even betraying which pastrami they prefer. They say they simply feel lucky to have two jobs in this sour economy -- and that they enjoy the contrasting clienteles.
On a recent night at Canter’s, a young man in a long coat with red feathery frills came in with a woman who greeted friends with an outstretched hand ready to be kissed.
Lopez said clients at Langer’s are more of the workaday variety.
“At Langer’s, it’s downtown people, suits and ties,” he said. “At Canter’s, it’s like rock ‘n’ roll, long hair, tattoos.”
Eva Francois began serving at Canter’s 17 years ago. The nighttime shift allowed her to spend days with her young son, but once he grew older, she was able to work days. A co-worker who served at both delis suggested lunch shifts at Langer’s, an extra job she has been working the last eight years. Like many dual-deli waiters, Francois takes the health benefits at Langer’s -- a union shop.
Working up to five lunch shifts a week at Langer’s and four night shifts at Canter’s, the busy waitress can hardly manage to keep lunch meats out of routine conversation. Describing her Canter’s boss, she says: “She’s the best manager. This is no bologna.”
Starting out at a second deli after getting used to the first one can be confusing in the beginning. At Langer’s, sandwiches are ordered by number, at Canter’s by name. When Lopez started working both jobs, he would have to translate from Langer’s to Canter’s in his mind, almost like someone learning a foreign tongue.
“I had to think Canter’s mode to remember Langer’s mode,” Lopez said.
A “No. 19" at Langer’s, for instance, is a Brooklyn Downtowner at Canter’s: Swiss cheese, pastrami, Russian dressing and cole slaw on rye.
Canter granddaughter Terri Bloomgarden said it’s easy to overstate deli rivalry. Delis all over the city, she said, share ingredients, offering smoked fish and salami when someone else runs out. She said she can’t recall doing so with Langer’s, but would be willing.
Norm Langer, whose father got into the food business as a child in New Jersey selling hot dogs to pay for his bar mitzvah, slathers on a little more bluster. The shared employee system is mutually beneficial, he says, but it’s not a friendship, not even a partnership.
At 65, the deli man has not lost his competitive edge.
“I don’t talk to these people,” he said of Canter’s. “They don’t talk to me. If you want to know the God’s truth, most of ‘em don’t like me. I’m the guy getting all the publicity. I’m the guy with the best pastrami in the universe.”