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One-Deli Town : While Pastrami Wars Rage Elsewhere, a Lonely Outlet Struggles

October 08, 1989|FAYE FIORE | Times Staff Writer

When New York's Carnegie Deli opened a spot in Beverly Hills this summer, the kitchen ran out of food the first day. At Juniors Deli in Westwood, there is standing room only. They say an elderly man once fainted in the packed lobby of Nate 'n' Al's in Beverly Hills, and when they revived him, he wanted to know if he'd lost his place in line.

"There is so much business out there it's ridiculous," Juniors' owner Marvin Saul said.

Except in Long Beach.

Deli Wars Raging Countywide

The deli wars are raging all over Los Angeles County, but in Long Beach, they haven't even fired a shot.

There are still people in Long Beach who have never tasted a bagel. ("I've heard bagels are just like rocks.") People in Long Beach who fear bagels. ("Do I have to have my sandwich on a bagel?")

There are Italian delis and Chinese delis and submarine-sandwich shops that call themselves delis. But when it comes to a New York-style, Jewish deli where you can find a decent knish, Long Beach is a one-deli town. And the one deli in Long Beach is struggling.

"The people in Long Beach are marvelous. You would not believe the number of Gentiles who come in to wish me a happy New Year," said Bert Markovitz, owner of the Bagel Bistro, the only traditional Jewish deli in the city limits. "It's a shame I have to make a living. Otherwise, I would enjoy this."

Can It Be Truly Cosmopolitan?

Sure, Long Beach has the World Trade Center. Sure it claims to be "The most on the coast." But if a city does not cry out for a restaurant where the smell of pastrami and hot dogs hits you in the face, where the waitresses ignore you and make your life miserable, can it ever be truly cosmopolitan?

"Long Beach is virgin territory, you'll forgive the expression," Saul said. "The San Fernando Valley didn't exist until it got a half-dozen delis. It's part of being cosmopolitan. It's part of being avant-garde. You can't be anywhere unless you've got a decent deli."

It is not just the fact that a sizable number of Jews migrated from Long Beach to Orange County years ago. Deli mavens say their customers include "yuppies, yippies, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Italians--you name it, we've got it." As the late Leo Steiner, who made New York's Carnegie Deli famous, put it: "Who doesn't know chopped liver?"

"A nice Jewish lady explained it to me," said Belle Markovitz, Bert's business partner and wife. "Long Beach was settled by a bunch of people from Iowa and they didn't know delis from nothin.' But I don't believe it. Long Beach is a beautiful city. It's so centrally located. It just isn't ethnic."

The Markovitzes had been running delis for 35 years, from Manhattan to the Bronx to Encino, when they moved to Long Beach a couple of years ago with every intention of getting out of the deli business. It was a virtual act of mercy when they opened the Bagel Bistro at 45th and Atlantic in Bixby Knolls, a storefront operation with a case full of knockwurst and a room full of red tables, most of them empty.

Early-Morning Start

"I looked around and said, 'Where you gonna get a dozen bagels when you're having people over?' " said Belle, a friendly woman with a red apron who gets up at 4 every morning to start baking bagels. She knows her customers not by their first names but by what they like to eat.

"You tell your sister I said hello," Belle said, handing $6.52 worth of creamed herring and rye bread to a stooped lady in her 80s who was admiring the olives.

"Oh, my sister," the lady said, the cuffs of her pants rolled up around her blue sneakers. "She fractured her hip and that was bad, and then the next thing she did she fractured her vertebra and I had to call 911 to get her up."

"Well my dear, you have a happy and healthy New Year," Belle said sympathetically.

It was 4 on a Tuesday afternoon, three days after Rosh Hashanah and six days before Yom Kippur, and the counter girl was already sweeping up. At the same time in New York, the customers would have been lining up for an early dinner or a couple of pounds of corned beef to take home, Belle said.

Two Years Without One

For 39 years, Cohen's Deli thrived on East Anaheim Street in Long Beach, but business was dwindling when it closed in 1985. Two years passed before the Bagel Bistro opened and for two years Long Beach did just fine.

Leo Harmatz, who founded Cohen's and has since retired to Lakewood, said he got too old to eat deli food and he thinks the rest of Long Beach did, too.

"Older people can't eat that stuff," Harmatz said. "Everything is pickled, smoked and cured. When you pass the 50 or 60 mark, you gotta watch yourself."

But many people insist there is a demand for good deli food in this town and that, in fact, some Long Beach residents drive as far away as Beverly Hills for brisket. Others just suffer.

"I miss a good juicy corned beef sandwich. I love pastrami. I love tongue," said Long Beach City Councilman Evan Braude. "I can't tell you how many times I've thought of opening a deli myself. But I'm too busy doing other things."

Bert and Belle Markovitz would stack their pastrami against anything you buy in Los Angeles. The trouble is, a lot of people in Long Beach, including Braude, do not know his place exists.

Sprouts and Decor

Storefront delis like his might make it in New York, Juniors' Marvin Saul said. But in L.A., people want sprouts and decor. "You have to give them a little schmaltz," he said.

Long Beach still has some growing up to do, its civic leaders admit, and a Midwestern image to shake. But it won't be a chicken pot pie city forever.

"No," Saul declared. "I love Long Beach. I was there last Spring. When I retire and give Juniors to my sons, I'm going to open another restaurant and Long Beach will be the place.

"It takes half a million people to support one big deli. Long Beach has what, 400,000? In another 10 years, Long Beach will be ready for one big Juniors."

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