Albert J. Langer, founder of Langer's Delicatessen-Restaurant, whose succulent hand-cut pastrami on hot rye bread, topped with Gulden's mustard, won praise as the finest hot pastrami sandwich in America -- or the world, depending on the critic -- died Sunday in Agoura from complications of old age. He was 94.
Langer's Delicatessen marked its 60th anniversary nearly two weeks ago with a celebration that included accolades for the deli's food and its survival. Long after the Jewish community moved on and other business owners packed up and left, driven away by the neighborhood's high crime rate, Langer kept his business open at 7th and Alvarado streets, adjacent to MacArthur Park.
The intersection will be named Langer's Square in his honor next year.
"This place never gave up on the community," Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine said to the crowd at the 60th anniversary celebration.
Langer's persistence paid off in 1993, when the Metro Red Line subway opened its westbound stop not far from his deli. The subway rescued Langer's Delicatessen, depositing long lines of hungry downtown workers to its door at lunchtime.
Such twists in the story of Langer's Delicatessen led Los Angeles Times staff writer David Shaw to describe the deli in a narrative tribute as "a living microcosm of the Los Angeles story, from dramatic post-war growth through all the triumphs and tribulations, changes and challenges that have followed...."
Langer was born Jan. 6, 1913, in Newark, N.J., to Russian immigrants. Because his birth certificate was not registered until Jan. 23, the later date was used as his official birthday.
Langer learned the deli business early. He earned the money needed to pay for his $35 bar mitzvah by working at a local delicatessen, thus learning a trade that would last him a lifetime. Langer plied his trade after graduating from high school, traveling to New York's Catskills in the summer and Miami Beach in the winter to work at delicatessens.
Langer moved to California in 1937 and eventually settled in Los Angeles. While working at a deli, he met and married Jean Grace Irma Stearn. The couple had two children.
After a stint in the Army and a few unsuccessful business endeavors, Langer took over a small 12-seat deli shop to open Langer's Delicatessen in 1947. Although the couple worked long hours, the deli soon became a gathering place in the Jewish community and an important stop for new residents.
"The Jewish people when they came here came to those boarding houses, the hotels, the small ones," Langer told The Times in 1986, gesturing toward MacArthur Park.
"They come here to decide where they were going to live.... They rent a hotel room and then they'd be out in the living room, in the park, all day."
As the restaurant prospered, Langer bought adjacent properties and expanded the deli in 1952 and 1968, upgrading the small shop to a 135-seat, 4,300-square-foot enterprise.
In the late 1980s and '90s, when Latinos filled the community that once teemed with Jews and when poverty and drug peddlers replaced prosperity, Langer adjusted by changing the deli's hours and offering curbside service. With the arrival of the subway, even more generations of city residents developed a history with Langer's.
His son, Norm Langer, who began working in the deli in 1962 and assumed more responsibility for day-to-day operation with the passing years, now runs the business that remains a family affair.
In his later years, Al Langer continued to spend part of the day at the deli, reading his newspaper, greeting customers, watching the cycles of his customers' lives.
"It's fascinating," he said in a 1986 Times article. "They come in as children, they get married and they bring in their children. And the older people that used to come in, they disappear. Little by little, they're gone...."
The constant at Langer's Delicatessen is good food. The expansive menu includes fried kippers, corned beef, New York steak, and livers and onion. But the deli's hot pastrami sandwich sent critics searching for superlatives. Part of the secret, Langer said, was that the pastrami is steamed tender for hours and hand-sliced. Hot rye bread is the other key.
Writing in the New Yorker in 2002, critic Nora Ephron praised the sandwich as the finest in the world and "in short, a work of art."
"The rye bread, faintly sour, perfumed with caraway seeds, lightly dusted with cornmeal, is as good as any rye bread on the planet, and Langer's puts about seven ounces of pastrami on it, the proper proportion of meat to bread.
"The resulting sandwich, slathered with Gulden's mustard, is an exquisite combination of textures and tastes. It's soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy. It's a symphony orchestra, different instruments brought together to play one perfect chord."
If Langer's Delicatessen were in New York, the critic opined, "it would be a shrine." As it was, people from New York and other distant locales came to determine whether the deli indeed deserved its lofty reputation.
"We did," Langer told The Times. "They were never disappointed."
Langer is survived by his son, Norm Langer of Woodland Hills; a daughter, Laurie Bernie of Agoura; grandchildren Darren Langer of Calabasas; Trisha Langer of Sherman Oaks; Emily Alexandrian of Agoura Hills; and Shauna Lester of Agua Dulce. His wife died in 2004.
Langer's funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Eden Memorial Park, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills.