On the menu: boerewors, a South African sausage. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
On some late nights, Jeff's Gourmet Sausage Factory is the most happening place in L.A.'s Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Squadrons of families and kids descend for a late-night nosh. You might see packs of high school boys lounging at the outside tables, carefully adjusting their clothes: popping their white collars, skewing their yarmulkes just right to look as much like Jay-Z as possible while still keeping to the letter of Orthodox Jewish dress code.
Jeff's Gourmet is a kosher sausage factory and eatery, operating for the last 11 years in a predominantly Jewish and Middle Eastern neighborhood. On a good day, the small space is crowded to the brim with people — people eating, people waiting in line, crowds of people waiting by the pick-up window for their names to be shouted. There's a lot of shouting.
Almost all the food is made fresh in-house: every sausage, every cured meat, every sauce. There's everything from the traditional — all-beef kosher dogs and veal bratwurst — to the unmistakably Los Angeles, like kosher merguez and kosher jalapeño dogs. The kosherizations range from the charmingly bizarre and pungent beef and chicken chorizo to the brilliant nondairy version of ranch sauce (for the chicken wings), a delightfully creamy fresh aioli.
Their basic all-beef kosher hot dog is a modest-looking jewel of a dog. It's an intense little thing, with subtle layers of tangy beefiness and spice. This isn't the hot dog for folks yearning for the exact taste of a New York or Chicago street dog. This, says owner and sausage master Jeff Rohatiner, is a boutique dog.
Sausages are made fresh weekly in the small sausage kitchen in the back. They use fresh, high-quality meat, which allows for a thicker grind of meat. This makes a juicier, more flavorful sausage, Rohatiner says. And the sausages are carefully spiced. "I think sausage is all about the spice," he says. "It's about the flavor of the spice culture you're connecting to."
Rohatiner's boerewors sausage is exceptional — a glorious, coarsely ground, chewy marvel of the sausage arts. It's dry, tangy and dense with spices, a balance of coriander, nutmeg, vinegar and a touch of clove. Rohatiner spent his first year in business testing different versions of the thing, running them by his South African customers, tweaking and re-tweaking until the sausage passed muster.
Look to the ever-changing specials menu for some of the best stuff. That's where you'll find Rohatiner's experimental sausages, and where you'll find the single greatest thing at Jeff's: the old-fashioned special pastrami sandwich, a new challenger to the throne of L.A.'s best pastrami experience.
The pastrami sandwich on the regular menu is nice enough — a polite, lightly smoked pastrami, made from lean brisket. But it's almost shamed by the pure meaty glory of the old-fashioned pastrami, an occasional special that can be described only as an unchained blast of garlic and smoke and meaty essence on rye. If the regular-menu pastrami is a genteel lapdog, then the old-fashioned is a big fat old bulldog of a pastrami that'll knock you down and slobber all over you.
The old-fashioned, Rohatiner says, is a tip of the hat to the New York pastrami of yesteryear — richer, fattier, smoked longer than others and then steamed to concentrate the flavors. It's made from beef belly. It comes to you in huge, pink slabs, with ribbons of beef fat and great hunks of beautiful char. There are pungent, crispy exterior bits, thick meaty bits and gorgeously melty fatty bits. This is no sanitized commercial product; this is the wild untamed soul of pastrami.
It's an old-world, Romanian-style pastrami, he says: extra-garlicky, extra-smoky, fashioned after his memory of his beloved, dearly departed New York deli, Bernstein's on Essex.
It's a shame that the old-fashioned isn't on the regular menu, but then again, some things are magical enough that they deserve a little special effort to track down. But, luckily for us, Jeff's is part of the new world too, which is why you can hit up its Facebook page and Twitter feed (@jeffsgourmet) for daily updates on the specials. A chance of catching the old-fashioned special pastrami, in and of itself, justifies the existence of Twitter.
JEFF'S GOURMET SAUSAGE FACTORY:
LOCATION: 8930 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 858-8590 http://www.jeffsgourmet.com.
PRICE: Hot dogs, $3 to $5; sausage sandwiches, $5 to $8; deli sandwiches and entrees, $7 to $13; sides, $1 to $3.
DETAILS: Open Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed Saturday. Soft drinks. Credit cards accepted. Street parking. Catering, bulk sausage and mail order available.