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Viva Pastrami!

A Jewish deli favorite endures in a Mexican-American neighborhood that was once L.A.’s Lower East Side

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Jim’s in Boyle Heights. (All photos: Saul Herckis)

Walking down Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, you’ll hear Spanish music playing from storefronts and smell the whiff of spicy meats from nearby food trucks and taquerias—everything you’d expect in this predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood in East Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from L.A.’s rejuvenated downtown.

But at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Breed stands George’s, a diner that, in addition to advertising burritos and tacos, also proudly sells pastrami. Just a few blocks away at 1st and State, there’s Jim’s, another joint in a similar vein—a 1950s-style diner that sells pastrami sandwiches and a pastrami-topped burger along with standard Mexican fare. In nearby Monterey Park, there’s a branch of The Hat, a popular pastrami chain.

The availability of pastrami in Boyle Heights might appear odd if you’re unfamiliar with the area’s history. Even Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times and a native Angeleno, was perplexed at first when encountering the Jewish deli staple on the east side of town. “It always struck me as a little weird,” he says, “until I realized that until the ’40s Boyle Heights was, in addition to being a Mexican-American neighborhood, the Jewish neighborhood.”

Today, there are no Jews left in this area. The “last Jew of Boyle Heights,” Eddie Goldstein, passed away last month. But even if most Jews left Boyle Heights long ago, their pastrami lives on as their culinary legacy.

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Back in the 1920s and ’30s, Boyle Heights was a diverse, working-class enclave. There were Mexicans and Japanese Americans, Molokan Russians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Italians and African-Americans. At no point were Jews a majority of the population; they constituted about 40 percent of the residents, largely concentrated around Brooklyn Avenue near Soto, at their absolute peak. Nonetheless, this area was Jewish enough to be referred to as “Los Angeles’ Lower East Side.”

The Jewish influence could be felt in the area, especially along Brooklyn Avenue, which was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1994. George Sanchez, a professor of American Studies at USC who has researched the history of Boyle Heights, states that back in the late ’20s and ’30s, “one would certainly see a predominance of Jewish-owned businesses. They would include meat shops, dairy shops, movie theaters, drugstores—all kinds of shops.” One of these stores, now an optometrist’s office, was the original Canter’s Deli.

The Jews of Boyle Heights were unlike their counterparts farther west in Hollywood, who were far more affluent and upwardly mobile. The east-siders were largely leftist and secular. All of the major unions—carpenters, bakers, garment workers—had headquarters or offices along Brooklyn Avenue because many of their working-class constituents lived in the area. “This was the heart of L.A.’s socialist and communist Jewish residence. Almost all of the famous Jewish leftists lived in Boyle Heights for some significant part of their lives,” Sanchez notes.

World War II was a transformative moment for Boyle Heights. Much of the Japanese-American population was forcibly interned, and most wouldn’t return to the area. Many young Jews and other white ethnics left to fight and didn’t return after the war either, choosing instead to start their lives and families in other parts of the city.

It would be tempting to view the demographic transformation of Boyle Heights purely through the lens of ethnic succession, but to do so would ignore the institutional forces that actively sought to racially segregate this once-diverse community. The Jews and other white ethnics didn’t leave Boyle Heights simply because they became more affluent and were better able to afford homes in other parts of Los Angeles. Many left because of government and bank policies that made it easier for them to move out. In 1939, the Federal Housing Authority gave Boyle Heights its lowest possible rating—a grade of 4, mostly due to its diverse demographic makeup. In the Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, this “melting pot” area was characterized as “hopelessly heterogeneous.”

“It’s specifically graded low because it’s seen as a diverse community,” Sanchez notes, “Diversity in terms of population was seen as a negative because it [implied] that the neighborhood was on a downslope.” As a result, Boyle Heights was “redlined.” Young Jews returning from World War II would have found it difficult to secure a bank loan to buy property in their old neighborhood. At the same time, parts of the San Fernando Valley that had previously been closed to Jews were opening up to them. These communities were far more homogenous and had been awarded higher grades, which made it easier to secure bank loan financing.

By 1960, Boyle Heights had become a majority Mexican-American community, which it remains to this day. Canter’s opened an outpost on Fairfax Avenue in 1941 to capitalize on the burgeoning Jewish population on the west side of the city, though its original location on Brooklyn Avenue remained open for several years after that, partly because it had the support of the wider Boyle Heights community. “The people that went to Canter’s were not just Jews,” Sanchez says. “There was a lot of knowledge about the different communities, a lot of experimentation in terms of eating and food.”

Gold shares a story about his wife’s grandmother, a Mexican-American lifelong resident of East Los Angeles, that seemed to corroborate Sanchez’s assertion: “She used to talk about this place she used to remember on the old Brooklyn Avenue that used to have the most wonderful pastrami,” he recalls, a “long gone” restaurant. “After talking about it a few times I realized that the place she was longing for, the place she went to as a little girl, was Canter’s.” Gold ended up taking her to the Fairfax Avenue location. “It was the exact taste and the exact sensation that she had as a little girl that she thought she’d never have again,” he says.

Gold’s in-law’s experience seems to confirm what he believes about the persistence of pastrami in Boyle Heights: “I think there’s an atavistic longing for pastrami. People who are from the neighborhood have it. I don’t think many of them know why they do; they just know they’ve always had pastrami,” he says.

If you look closely, the Jewish presence can still be seen in Boyle Heights. Some of the stores on the former Brooklyn Avenue still boast the original tile work, including some Jewish iconography, from decades past. Sanchez notes a Guatemalan church in the area was using a building that had once been a synagogue; it still had the original ironwork that contained Jewish symbols, and for a while had called itself Iglesia Hebreos in honor of the building’s history. The Breed Street Shul, which is now a national historic site, is just around the corner from George’s and is undergoing renovation. The small sanctuary has been restored, but the larger one is not yet up to earthquake code. The eventual plan is to use the restored buildings both for Jewish ritual purposes and to benefit the wider Mexican-American community as a meeting and event space.

But for the most part, what remains of Jewish Boyle Heights is the pastrami—and even that is complicated. “There is no Jewish roots with the pastrami at all,” says Gus Frousakis, the owner at the Boyle Heights branch of Jim’s, which is part of a Greek-owned chain. “It was just something that was just popular.” And still is, apparently. “It’s very, very popular,” says Anthony Salguero, manager at nearby George’s, who notes that pastrami has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1966. “We run out and people get angry at us.”

pastrami sandwich, taco

I tried the pastrami sandwich at both establishments. Both are served on long white rolls. As a native New Yorker with regular access to good Jewish delis, I can’t describe the Boyle Heights’ versions I sampled as extraordinary in any way. Gold concurs: “It’s not a terrific specialty.”

Yet as I sat outside eating my sandwich in 80-degree winter weather, this didn’t trouble me all that much. As I stared across 1st Street at the music shop blaring Spanish music, a mariachi from nearby Mariachi Plaza showed up to buy his lunch, too. I didn’t catch what he ordered, but I secretly hoped it was the pastrami. After all, it has been the locals, not the Jews visiting from the west side or elsewhere, who’ve kept this element of east side Jewish culinary culture alive all these years.

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What was distinctive about their sandwiches in the 40’s was the crunchy rye crust of their pastrami sandwiches. But no more, and the prices: Yikes! The “orgs(frats/sor)” at UCLA used to sniff at the carloads of poor Jewish students who came in from Boyle Heights and referred to the new campus as JewCLA. Canter’s bakery goods were more Viennese then and seem more Russian now(not so magically light). Here in Israel, I haven’t found a great pastrami place yet. Let’s hear about some!

tendilla says:

I was born in Boyle Heights in the 1940’s and lived there my first ten years….we went back to little Canter’s for many years….into the 60’s & early 70’s I believe. You would buy a plate of mixed meats…. corned beef, pastrami & tongue, a plate of rye bread, a plate of kosher pickles and some potato salad a Sunday lunch for a king or a family of four hungry Jews for about 5 bucks or so!!! Incidentally it wasn’t just Brooklyn but also First street that had the food places. I remember going shopping with my mother to first st…all the Kosher Markets with the Pickle & Pickled Herring Barrels sitting outside the store…Just Dig Right In!!!!

Pastrami flourished all over L.A. in the 50’s & 60’s in the form of Pastrami Dips (similar to Philippe’s), Hamburger & Hot Dog Stands..on .every other corner!!! While it’s not the Deli Pastrami of Langer’s it still makes a tasty sandwich. Anyone interested check out “the Hat” with locations in Simi, Pasadena and a few others….They make a Pastrami Dip on a Roll for about $6.95 with close to a pound of meat on it…ummmm,ummmm, ummmm!!!

GOLDSTEIN from Wabash Ave.

Lynne T says:

Seems to be the way of the world, to a degree. Schwartz’s Deli and St. Urbain’s Bagel in Montreal are owned and operated by Italians and staffed by the gamut of local inhabitants. In Toronto’s old Jewish community around Kensington Market, Judy Perly held the fort single-handedly with her Sunday brunches at the Free Times, but she’s been joined by a 30ish deli and food truck operator. I’ve yet to find out who has opened a new bagel bakery in the Market, but won’t be surprised if it’s a young MOT who has bucked the trend to go into the professions or be an MBA to make bagels the old fashioned way, in a wood-fired oven.

Such a crappy story. Stating that pastrami is a link to the Jewish couture that was Brooklyn Ave is nuts. The people do not know the history nor care who or what was here before. Then eating at Jims? How in gods name can that be anything related to a Jewish deli????!!!! You should of done a story on the Japanese that lived here and then eaten at Otomisan, a REAL link to the Japanese history of Boyle Heights. Wow, pastrami at Jims a link to Jewish history what a joke.

    tendilla says:

    Heeey Raaaay???…Wuzzz up with you….you don’t have a clue!!!???

    No one said Pastrami was linked to Jewish Hair (couture) on Brooklyn Ave????

    HOWEVER…Corned Beef, Pastrami, Tongue, etc. WAAAAS part of East L.A. before a Taco Stand ever existed there…let alone a Sushi Place!!!

    How old are you 12???

    Jim’s was not the point of the story…only the question of why pastrami is served in those places!!!

    If you have such a problem with the Jewish CULTURE why were you reading this BLOG???

I relocated to NYC years ago and I miss E.LA and Boyle Heights. Maybe I should hit up a Taco Bell or Del Taco so I can get back in touch with my roots!

When I still lived there, the greater E. LA, area including Lincoln Hts, City
Terrace, Monterrey Park, Alhambra, Whittier, El Sereno, PIco
Rivera..even Downey and Pasadena, was a pastrami lovers’ paradise. IMO,
it is more indicative of the Car/Drive-in culture than Jewish. Back in
the day, The Hat in Alhambra was the best. Drive-in joints just like Jim’s were
all over that area and you could easily get delicious Mexican food,
burgers and of course pastrami.

Its been a while since I was there, but I doubt you heard “Spanish” music in Boyle Heights. I think you are just as confused over the dif between Spanish and Mexican as you are over fast food pastrami and the remnants of Jewish culture in E.LA. Sorry, but Jim’s pastrami is about as “Jewish” as Taco Bell tacos are “Mexican”.

As for artifacts of the Jewish presence in E. LA, when I lived in City Terrace, my rented old house had a mezuzah on the doorpost. Also, as mentioned in this article, the Breed St. Shul is still standing…what about the Jewish cemeteries? Are they still there? I remember there were several.

The first part of Lillian Faderman’s memoir “Naked in the Promised Land” takes place in East L.A., I was thinking of this article as I was reading about teenaged Lillian’s pachuca style outfits and do-ups.

The Jewish cemeteries are still there, but one is having some troubles. There’s still pastrami all over LA… and it still is, but the one thing about Boyle Heights that might point back to ELA Jewry more is the fact you can buy bagels at all the supermarkets. Some are the soft kind, but you can also find the more trad hard kind. It’s not quite as easy to find these bagels in other areas of the Eastside and the eastern suburbs.

Also, Mexicans have always been on the eastside tendilla. LA *was* in Mexico after all. But I think the history would probably favor tamales and chili over tacos, because there was a late 19th century tamale craze which really put those Mexican foods into the American diet. Tacos were popular, but they were more like the Jack in the Box tacos than the current tacos.

As for pastrami – there was a pastrami craze in LA. Restaurants of all kinds sold it. Oki Dog sold it. Jim’s sold it. The Hat sold it. Tommy’s sold it. Pizza restaurants sold it. Italian delis (a fast disappearing thing here) sold it. Bun Boy sold it. It’s sold on a French roll, not the more trad rye or in a reuben (both are hard to find). There are also pastrami burgers, and pastrami on top of chili cheese fries. The Oki Dog is a pastrami with hot dog in a tortilla.

It was brought here from New York, and everyone liked it.

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Viva Pastrami!

A Jewish deli favorite endures in a Mexican-American neighborhood that was once L.A.’s Lower East Side