Some people are born with charm. Others struggle to acquire it. Transpose that truism to the restaurant business and you have Allen's Sandwich Shop. What Allen's has that others are striving to fabricate is genuine old-time diner-deli atmosphere.
At Allen's, the paper drink cones, the heavy coffee mugs, the folksy waitresses in sensible clothes and the down-home food are the real thing, not trendy stage props.
Allen's has been operating in downtown Los Angeles for 23 years. Before that, owner Allen Salzberg worked at other eating places within a block or so of his present location. The day he opened the sandwich shop, the line to get in stretched from the door to the corner. The grateful Salzberg fed the crowd with chopped liver appetizers. To this day, waiting customers get the same treatment. It's Salzberg's trademark.
Another trademark would have to be those wonderful, warm-hearted waitresses. And what loyalty. When a plate of stuffed cabbage rolls and creamy mashed potatoes inspired praise, the waitress who brought it responded with a nice word for George Washington, the man who put it together. "I think he could take shoe leather and make it taste good," she said.
Washington is a specialty cook who drops in once a week to make the stuffed cabbage, matzo balls and other items. But the man behind the sandwiches is Salzberg himself. A blurb on the menu claims they are the best in town.
What makes them so good? "Me," Salzberg replied. "I'm not kidding you. I'm my own secret weapon." It isn't the ingredients that make the difference. "It's a feeling, " he said. And his touch is so distinctive that his wife can identify a Salzberg product in a blind tasting.
Salzberg makes almost every sandwich, and they are good. I loved the super tuna melt on sourdough toast with avocado, the meat-packed grilled Reuben, the hot beef brisket with potatoes and gravy, the French dip brisket, Allen's special, which is stuffed with pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing and falls apart as you eat it and the special deluxe club, which towers above the plate.
Order these and others from the long list but skip the hamburger. I'm sure it's fine, but the creative Salzberg requires more inspiration than a meat patty and bun can provide. "It's an average hamburger. What can you do to a hamburger?" he shrugged.
Salzberg is so obliging that he'll make half a sandwich if the whole one is too much. That leaves room afterward for the cheesecake, a dense mixture on a nut-lined graham cracker crust. It's very nice. Other desserts that appear occasionally include a nutmeggy rice pudding and a big, plain baked apple.
The cheesecake is made at the restaurant, and so is the roasted, salt-free turkey breast that is now Allen's biggest seller. The turkey comes in sandwiches and also on its own.
Check the postings on the wall for daily specials. The turkey chow mein (Wednesday) is "fantastic," according to Salzberg. And sometimes there is taco salad, which is about as contemporary as Allen's gets.
The sandwich shop does not look large as you enter but twists around to a spacious back room. Most of the customers are from the garment district, and once I spotted a Salzberg sandwich being consumed with enthusiasm in a showroom in the nearby California Mart.
Prices are reasonable. An enormous plate that includes an avocado half and three salads--turkey, potato and coleslaw--is $6.50. Allen's special sandwich is $5.25; the super tuna melt is $5.50 and the grilled Reuben $5.75. All the sandwiches come with potato salad or coleslaw, so there is plenty to eat.
Allen's Sandwich Shop, 306 East 9th St., Los Angeles (213) 972-9908. Open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash only. Park on street or in nearby lots.