When I was eight we moved from one side of the city to the other, over the famous bridge, and another less famous one, from the leafy north shore of Sydney to the hot, concreted inner west. Away from my school and my friends and the few suburbs I knew; away from the eat-in Pizza Hut Restaurant and Friday night noodle markets, toward Bar Italia’s gelato and Il Cugino’s anchovy-rife Pizzeria.
Joan used to be married to a man from New Zealand, but now they’re just friends. He lives in Venice. Joan sits on her lifeline somewhere between 41 and 55, she has yellow-blonde hair, parted at the side and secured near her ear with a pink clip. Her accent is part drawling Californian, part Fargo, North Dakota. Joan works as a waitress at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant in Westlake, Los Angeles. Open since 1947 (though tragically, orangely renovated sometime in the 70s), Langer’s is home to the #19 sandwich. Oh, the #19. How does one put love into words? Let me start at the right side of my plate, with the pickle; everybody loves pickles. Everybody. The Langer’s pickles are plump, firm and yielding; vinegary and sour… again, love renders me mute. Joan interrupts my reverie for, ‘a little more Sprite?’ Yes please, Joan, how did you know? Joan makes sure we are comfortable, discreetly replacing our balled-up, Russian-dressing-stained paper serviettes. She walks up and down the bar, tending all of her customers with the same quiet courtesy, ‘A little more diet coke?’ The menu humbly describes the #19 as PASTRAMI, SWISS CHEESE and COLE SLAW with Russian Style Dressing ($15.20). But the bread! For the love of bread, why is there no mention of the bread? Baked daily and sliced fresh, the rye has such a perfect crust, not toasted exactly, certainly not soft; I’m sure there’s no other word for it than, well, crusty. The secret? It’s baked twice; don’t tell. The caraway is a flavour memory, lingering back there somewhere but tricky to pin down. It’s bread to break Atkins. Pastrami, cole slaw and Swiss cheese are each individually sublime, and together symbiotic. We all know a good sandwich is the sum of it’s parts, but a great sandwich is the sum of perfect parts, prepared by expert hands and served with love. Traditionally hot pastrami is a NYC kinda thing. So why then did Nora Ephron, the woman who knew New York so well it’s an integral character in most of her films, name this the best in the world? What does Langer’s have that New York City doesn’t? Surely not better pastrami, nor more passionate pastrami eaters. What Langer’s has got that NYC hasn’t, is Joan. ‘A little more Sprite?’
“The hot pastrami sandwich served at Langer’s Delicatessen is the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world. It’s a symphony orchestra, different instruments brought together to play one perfect chord. It is, in short, a work of art.” – Nora Ephron