A Jewish deli favorite endures in a Mexican-American neighborhood that was once L.A.’s Lower East Side
Walking down Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, you’ll hear Spanish music playing from storefronts and smell the whiff of spicy meats from nearby food trucks and taquerias—everything you’d expect in this predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood in East Los Angeles, a stone’s throw from L.A.’s rejuvenated downtown.
But at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Breed stands George’s, a diner that, in addition to advertising burritos and tacos, also proudly sells pastrami. Just a few blocks away at 1st and State, there’s Jim’s, another joint in a similar vein—a 1950s-style diner that sells pastrami sandwiches and a pastrami-topped burger along with standard Mexican fare. In nearby Monterey Park, there’s a branch of The Hat, a popular pastrami chain.
The availability of pastrami in Boyle Heights might appear odd if you’re unfamiliar with the area’s history. Even Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times and a native Angeleno, was perplexed at first when encountering the Jewish deli staple on the east side of town. “It always struck me as a little weird,” he says, “until I realized that until the ’40s Boyle Heights was, in addition to being a Mexican-American neighborhood, the Jewish neighborhood.”
Today, there are no Jews left in this area. The “last Jew of Boyle Heights,” Eddie Goldstein, passed away last month. But even if most Jews left Boyle Heights long ago, their pastrami lives on as their culinary legacy.
Back in the 1920s and ’30s, Boyle Heights was a diverse, working-class enclave. There were Mexicans and Japanese Americans, Molokan Russians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Italians and African-Americans. At no point were Jews a majority of the population; they constituted about 40 percent of the residents, largely concentrated around Brooklyn Avenue near Soto, at their absolute peak. Nonetheless, this area was Jewish enough to be referred to as “Los Angeles’ Lower East Side.”
The Jewish influence could be felt in the area, especially along Brooklyn Avenue, which was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1994. George Sanchez, a professor of American Studies at USC who has researched the history of Boyle Heights, states that back in the late ’20s and ’30s, “one would certainly see a predominance of Jewish-owned businesses. They would include meat shops, dairy shops, movie theaters, drugstores—all kinds of shops.” One of these stores, now an optometrist’s office, was the original Canter’s Deli.
The Jews of Boyle Heights were unlike their counterparts farther west in Hollywood, who were far more affluent and upwardly mobile. The east-siders were largely leftist and secular. All of the major unions—carpenters, bakers, garment workers—had headquarters or offices along Brooklyn Avenue because many of their working-class constituents lived in the area. “This was the heart of L.A.’s socialist and communist Jewish residence. Almost all of the famous Jewish leftists lived in Boyle Heights for some significant part of their lives,” Sanchez notes.
World War II was a transformative moment for Boyle Heights. Much of the Japanese-American population was forcibly interned, and most wouldn’t return to the area. Many young Jews and other white ethnics left to fight and didn’t return after the war either, choosing instead to start their lives and families in other parts of the city.
It would be tempting to view the demographic transformation of Boyle Heights purely through the lens of ethnic succession, but to do so would ignore the institutional forces that actively sought to racially segregate this once-diverse community. The Jews and other white ethnics didn’t leave Boyle Heights simply because they became more affluent and were better able to afford homes in other parts of Los Angeles. Many left because of government and bank policies that made it easier for them to move out. In 1939, the Federal Housing Authority gave Boyle Heights its lowest possible rating—a grade of 4, mostly due to its diverse demographic makeup. In the Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, this “melting pot” area was characterized as “hopelessly heterogeneous.”
“It’s specifically graded low because it’s seen as a diverse community,” Sanchez notes, “Diversity in terms of population was seen as a negative because it [implied] that the neighborhood was on a downslope.” As a result, Boyle Heights was “redlined.” Young Jews returning from World War II would have found it difficult to secure a bank loan to buy property in their old neighborhood. At the same time, parts of the San Fernando Valley that had previously been closed to Jews were opening up to them. These communities were far more homogenous and had been awarded higher grades, which made it easier to secure bank loan financing.
By 1960, Boyle Heights had become a majority Mexican-American community, which it remains to this day. Canter’s opened an outpost on Fairfax Avenue in 1941 to capitalize on the burgeoning Jewish population on the west side of the city, though its original location on Brooklyn Avenue remained open for several years after that, partly because it had the support of the wider Boyle Heights community. “The people that went to Canter’s were not just Jews,” Sanchez says. “There was a lot of knowledge about the different communities, a lot of experimentation in terms of eating and food.”
Gold shares a story about his wife’s grandmother, a Mexican-American lifelong resident of East Los Angeles, that seemed to corroborate Sanchez’s assertion: “She used to talk about this place she used to remember on the old Brooklyn Avenue that used to have the most wonderful pastrami,” he recalls, a “long gone” restaurant. “After talking about it a few times I realized that the place she was longing for, the place she went to as a little girl, was Canter’s.” Gold ended up taking her to the Fairfax Avenue location. “It was the exact taste and the exact sensation that she had as a little girl that she thought she’d never have again,” he says.
Gold’s in-law’s experience seems to confirm what he believes about the persistence of pastrami in Boyle Heights: “I think there’s an atavistic longing for pastrami. People who are from the neighborhood have it. I don’t think many of them know why they do; they just know they’ve always had pastrami,” he says.
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
A partridge native to Yemen might go extinct. A rabbi is trying to save it, because he thinks it’s kosher.