A Jewish deli favorite endures in a Mexican-American neighborhood that was once L.A.’s Lower East Side
If you look closely, the Jewish presence can still be seen in Boyle Heights. Some of the stores on the former Brooklyn Avenue still boast the original tile work, including some Jewish iconography, from decades past. Sanchez notes a Guatemalan church in the area was using a building that had once been a synagogue; it still had the original ironwork that contained Jewish symbols, and for a while had called itself Iglesia Hebreos in honor of the building’s history. The Breed Street Shul, which is now a national historic site, is just around the corner from George’s and is undergoing renovation. The small sanctuary has been restored, but the larger one is not yet up to earthquake code. The eventual plan is to use the restored buildings both for Jewish ritual purposes and to benefit the wider Mexican-American community as a meeting and event space.
But for the most part, what remains of Jewish Boyle Heights is the pastrami—and even that is complicated. “There is no Jewish roots with the pastrami at all,” says Gus Frousakis, the owner at the Boyle Heights branch of Jim’s, which is part of a Greek-owned chain. “It was just something that was just popular.” And still is, apparently. “It’s very, very popular,” says Anthony Salguero, manager at nearby George’s, who notes that pastrami has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1966. “We run out and people get angry at us.”
I tried the pastrami sandwich at both establishments. Both are served on long white rolls. As a native New Yorker with regular access to good Jewish delis, I can’t describe the Boyle Heights’ versions I sampled as extraordinary in any way. Gold concurs: “It’s not a terrific specialty.”
Yet as I sat outside eating my sandwich in 80-degree winter weather, this didn’t trouble me all that much. As I stared across 1st Street at the music shop blaring Spanish music, a mariachi from nearby Mariachi Plaza showed up to buy his lunch, too. I didn’t catch what he ordered, but I secretly hoped it was the pastrami. After all, it has been the locals, not the Jews visiting from the west side or elsewhere, who’ve kept this element of east side Jewish culinary culture alive all these years.
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