Sunday, October 6, 2013

Canter's Delicatessen - Los Angeles

Recently, while Judy was out of town, I drove to Los Angeles to have lunch with Andrew. He suggested we go to Canter's Deli, located at 419 North Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036 (323-651-2030). It is in the Miracle Mile District, an area I don't recall visiting previously. Fairfax was closed off to traffic, a high chain-link fence segregated the street from the sidewalk, and a concert of some sort was going on beyond the fence from which we were excluded.
This area is typical LA, an incongruous mixture of sights and sounds. A block or two from Canter's is a large CBS compound, home of the CBS national news (or at least one of its homes). It looks like it fills an entire block. Close to it is the Farmer's Market. Many storefronts give indication this is a Jewish neighborhood, kosher bakeries, butcher shops and bookstores, and in fact, it has been historically the center of the Jewish community in Los Angeles.  We saw a number of Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish men with their rounded side curls (peyos) and wide-brimmed black felt Borsalino hats. But mixed in with this were street people in various stages of squalor, a sidewalk with human excrement, boarded up storefronts and a traffic policeman in shorts with green and red tatoos covering his exposed legs and thighs (I did a double-take to see if he was a legitimate policeman and felt less old-fashioned when Andrew acknowledged doing the same). 

Canter's has a 1950s decor and the feel and energy of a cafeteria. It is cavernous, with lots of steel and plastic. The women who were directing us to our seating were stereotypically bossy and loud. 
Just one section of the inside
The menu selection is ginormous and I learned, a little late, that there are things on a deli menu you should order and things you should avoid. Andrew told me, after-the-fact, that you don't order salads in a Jewish deli, "they're not very good." He was right. The Greek salad came in a large plastic bowl, with salad dressing in a separate little plastic cup (and it was not an inexpensive salad). The ingredients seemed alright, feta cheese, a little red onion, kalamata olives, tomato, cucumber and some lettuce, but it had no  pizzazz, nothing that unified it or pulled it together. It was like a Greek salad you would buy in a plastic container at an airport, or at a street fair. Thumbs down. 
Greek salad
salad dressing in plastic container
On the other hand, Andrew said I should order a corned beef sandwich, something Jewish delis are known for. So I ordered a Reuben, grilled pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on grilled rye bread. Unlike the salad, the ingredients of the Reuben were perfectly melded together, enhanced by the Russian dressing. I looked at the dressing and wondered why it was "Russian" and not "thousand island" as that is what it looked like to me. Google provides the answer: Thousand island is Russian with pickle relish added. 
Reuben with Russian dressing
The sandwich was accompanied by two potato cakes with plastic containers of apple sauce, sour cream and, of course, Russian dressing. The apple sauce on the potato cakes was surprisingly good (it sounded horrible), but I preferred catsup, hearkening back to my days as a boy when I ate the potato cakes cooked by my mother, slathered in castsup. The potato cakes were good, but my Mom's were better. 
potato cakes
I initially asked the waitress to put chopped liver on my Reuben, as there was a Bronx Special sandwich which had pastrami and chopped liver on open-face rye. She said that was the first time she'd had that request in 17 years as a waitress, but that they could do it. I reconsidered and had her bring the chopped liver as a side. I spread some of the liver on my sandwich and was glad I'd not subjected the whole sandwich to that combination. I brought the chopped liver home and enjoyed it cold, by itself, a day later. It was very livery, chunky, not as smooth as liverwurst or pate.
chopped liver
I also ordered some pickled herring. Andrew looked at me in abhorrence. He finds pickled herring disgusting. Some of the pickled herring I've had in Scandinavia has earmarks of being touched by angels, a divine food. Even better when mixed with beets or mustard. This herring had lots of large onion pieces in it and was probably mixed with sour cream. It was good, and I enjoyed it, but it did not have the freshness of the herring I really love. It was a tad bit chewy, not the beautiful stuff I've had. But I can't complain, I still enjoyed it. I brought most of it back home with me and also enjoyed it the next day. I had an onion roll along with it that was cooked to the consistency of a hockey puck. That should have been good deli fare, but was not. 
pickled herring
onion role
 Finally, I tried a sour pickle, which is deli standard issue. One or two bites was plenty. 
I was tempted by some of the wonderful looking desserts, but the stomach was rebelling. 

I've got mixed feelings about Canter's. It is clear that there are some great items on the menu, the Reuben being one of them. There are also some real dogs. I would go back for the Reuben and I suspect there are some other gems.


  1. Great review. I'd like to go with you next time, but I think I'll let Andrew order for me.

  2. Sounds like a fun "when the cat's away" day!