Six years after Wexler’s brought house-cured salmon back to Grand Central Market, four years after Ugly Drum sparked a pit-smoked pastrami craze at Smorgasburg, and two and a half years after Freedman’s started carving glazed brisket tableside in Silver Lake, new takes on Jewish deli food are suddenly showing up everywhere from sit-down restaurants to weekend pop-ups. Deli-inspired fare is one of the most exciting things to eat in LA right now.
Why the resurgence? Well, first there’s the cultural significance of delis in LA. The city’s best-known institutions date back close to a century: Canter’s opened in 1931, with Langer’s and Factor’s not far behind in the 1940s. Visit any of those beloved joints today and you’ll still find bustling crowds digging into bagels and lox, matzo ball soup, and corned beef, brisket, and pastrami sandwiches (or, in the case of Langer’s, the iconic No. 19). Suppliers like meat purveyor RC Provisions and A-1 Eastern Homemade Pickle go back several decades too, so the nostalgia factor is strong. And, of course, deli food is delicious. But industry experts point to more than that.
Micah Wexler, who arguably started the trend back in 2014, says, “Outside of the Jewish food thing, there’s always the pendulum swing from fine dining to comfort food. I think that the new place the pendulum has swung to right now is chefs cooking what’s in their souls and celebrating it.”
His partner at Wexler’s, Michael Kassar, adds, “What’s made LA special is chefs putting their culture unadulterated on a plate, like Kris did at Night Market and Ludo did at Petit Trois. That’s how LA has put its stamp on the food world.”
That’s exactly what chef-owner Jeremy Fox is doing at Birdie G’s. Shortly after the doors of the sprawling Santa Monica restaurant opened to diners in early 2019, Fox knew the equally sprawling menu needed something. An edit.
The dishes boomeranged from the Midwest to California and back. “I don’t know that people knew exactly what Birdie G’s was,” Fox says. As he and his team whittled things down, a theme started to resonate: the Jewish deli-inspired dishes with ties to his grandmother Gladys, for whom the restaurant is partially named (“Birdie” is his young daughter’s name, and the “G” stands for Gladys), were the standouts. Not only are these dishes the staff favorites, they are the ones diners keep coming back for. “They spark a lot of memories, ” he says.
Now, Fox’s miso-flavored matzo ball soup, caviar-topped smoked fish party dip; corned beef tongue; and Hangtown brei (eggs scrambled in schmaltz with matzo and pork belly) are the standout menu dishes establishing Birdie G’s place in the LA dining landscape. On the horizon? Fox’s take on gefilte fish. “I love the stuff in the glass jar, but hopefully I can make it better,” he says with a laugh.
Other chefs and artisans are breathing new life into deli classics as well. Rebecca King, who’s staged at Birdie G’s and Flat Point Barbecue, started doing sandwich pop-ups in February under the cheeky name the Bad Jew. “I’ve always called myself a bad Jew for loving pork, and loved that name, but I couldn’t do an all-bacon restaurant,” she says. At her rollicking Sunday-afternoon front-yard pop-ups in East Hollywood, she serves her 10-day-brined corned pork and porkstrami in two sandwiches, the Reubecca and the Danny Boy, respectively, both served with havarti on grilled rye.
And in Highland Park, former screenwriter and producer Jeff Strauss recently opened Jeff’s Table, a “micro deli” in the back of Flask Fine Wine that he describes as “what happens when you take a Jewish kid who grew up in the delis, pizzerias, and clam shacks of New England and plunk him in the cultural mecca of Los Angeles.”
Strauss puts unexpected touches on his meats, like adding miso to his house-made roast beef and upping his homemade brisket pastrami’s spice profile with a hefty amount of star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, and chile peppers. He then stacks the meats into hearty sandwiches like the Jeff’s special pastrami Reuben, served warm with a Parmesan crisp slid into the middle right before service for maximum meltiness, and the New G/OG roast beef with horseradish cream.
Even the traditional sit-down deli is getting a revamp, thanks to Eleven City Deli in Miracle Mile, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Effusive owner Bradley Rubin decked out the space with Art Deco accents and a sense of old-timey fun, like a 1960s soda fountain for serving boozy milkshakes and house-made root beer on tap. But alongside standards like smoked fish platters and matzo ball soup, there’s a modern sensibility that reflects how people eat now. Coleslaw and side salads are made fresh in small batches daily, mini Reubens can be ordered as a snackable starter, and there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options.
A bagel boom
Beyond that, consider the recent bagel boom: Ever since Belle’s, Maury’s, and Yeastie Boys burst onto the scene in the past few years, bagel makers have sprouted up in droves. A couple that started as pop-ups are already putting down roots: Pop’s has set up shop in Culver City’s Platform for the foreseeable future, and Courage owners Arielle Skye and Chris Moss are in the throes of construction on a Virgil Avenue storefront slated to open this spring. Much like the local pizzaiolos who’ve come to prominence in recent years, these bakers aren’t trying to mimic other cities. Instead, they are combining inspiration from places like New York City and Montreal with the bagels of their youth to create recipes that are unique to LA.
“Bagels are this year’s smashburger,” says Pop’s owner Zach Liporace. He bakes in batches of two dozen or less to ensure that his puffy, crisp-on-the-outside bagels are always warm, and serves only plain, everything, and cinnamon raisin. “Everyone deserves a hot bagel,” he says. Liporace even makes his own light, super-smooth, subtly tangy cream cheese from buttermilk.
Over in Toluca Lake, Hank’s husband-and-wife owners Trevor and Kelley Faris decided to call their sunny spot “a deli of sorts” as an “insurance policy,” jokes Trevor, to ensure that nontraditional ideas, like upcoming weekend pizza parties on the outdoor patio, would fit under the “deli” umbrella. That said, they’re dedicated to their craft: They’ve been hand-rolling their chewy bagels — marked by a bread-like open crumb on the interior — making homemade matzo ball soup, and curing salmon since they opened in December 2019.
Others, like Unity Bagels, are going even less traditional. Every Sunday at the DTLA farmers market, owner David Long weaves in flavors from LA’s culinary landscape for his inventive bagel sandwiches (like the Pico, a ceviche-topped nod to one of his favorite restaurants, Mid-City’s Guatemalan mainstay La Cevicheria) — served on light, airy bagels crafted with three types of organic flour.
And when they open in Virgil Village, Courage will once again rotate seasonal grains for its wild fermented dough, which results in interior holes so big you can fill them with cream cheese.
There’s even more on the horizon. The Belle’s Bagels team is working on a dinner menu for Highland Park music venue the Hi-Hat (where they post up to serve bagels Wednesday through Monday mornings) called the Nosh Pit, which co-owner Nick Schreiber describes as “Katz’s Deli at 2 a.m. vibes.” The “pastrami-forward” menu will feature pickle plates and a Chinese chicken salad. Add to that vegan deli pop-up Mort & Betty’s from chef Megan Tucker, who serves the likes of carrot lox and corned beet reuben tacos and is hoping to be a regular at a local farmers market later this year. Then consider the upcoming collab between Yeastie Boys and taco darlings Tacos 1986 (as well as last week’s combo between Ugly Drum and Alhambra standout Yang’s Kitchen), and the trend doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon.
“I feel like Jewish food never goes out of style. It is the ultimate chicken soup for the soul,” Moss of Courage says. “And as we as a culture become more interested in nourishing body, mind, soul, Jewish food is a natural fit for that.”