MAPPED: A pastrami sandwich food crawl in Boyle Heights

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When I moved to L.A. last year, I couldn’t believe how much pastrami was up for the eating. On Sunset, bright block letters writ large above vintage roadside stands proclaimed the pastrami gospel. My Instagram feed was blowing up with shots of warm meat tucked into soft slices of rye and steaming crinkly fries covered with hand-cut pastrami. Such food porn is enough to move even the laziest eater to hotfoot it over to Langer’s, Wexler’s or The Oinkster, no questions asked. I had thought pastrami began and ended with the salty tower of meat and rye at Katz’s in New York. Coleslaw, pickles and mustard on the side. Washed down with a seltzer. Boy, was I wrong.

To find out how this Jewish deli staple made its way out West, I called Lara Rabinovitch. She got her PhD in pastrami from NYU and is writing a book about this iconic sandwich meat as it relates to Little Rumania in early 20th-century New York. Right out of the gate, she suggested we meet in Boyle Heights. “That’s where Romanian Jewish immigrants first settled in LA at the turn of the 20th century,” said Rabinovitch. So, on a scorcher of a day, we hit up three Mexican roadside burger joints in Boyle Heights for pastrami. What we found was not the Jewish pastrami sandwich we both know and love — there was not a slice of rye to be found, for instance — but instead a Mexican pastrami sandwich that we ultimately agreed was a great Los Angeles institution in its own right. French rolls, jalapeños, telenovelas, aquas de jamaica and all.

There’s no way we could have phoned this one in. Check out what we discovered on our crawl below.

12:30 PM – Tom’s Burgers

Fans of the pastrami sandwich at Tom’s regularly make the long haul from Tijuana and Las Vegas, according to the manager we spoke with during our visit. The Tom’s version includes mustard, sliced pickles and thinly sliced pastrami stuffed into a French roll. The hot yellow peppers come on the side. (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At Tom’s Burgers, we could have ordered extras on our pastrami sandwich — bacon, guacamole, Thousand Island dressing — but instead we stuck to the classic. Instead of rye bread, the Mexican pastrami sandwich is served on a French roll and is stuffed to the gills with thin slices of pastrami, mustard and sliced pickles. Hot yellow peppers come on the side. Tom’s was originally opened by Greek immigrants in 1956 and has been serving the same style of pastrami sandwich ever since. Cost of one pastrami sandwich at Tom’s, along with two bottles of water, it being a very hot day: $10.89.

Tom’s: 3566 East 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90063 | (323) 261-7536

1:30 PM – Dino’s Burgers

We went for broke at Dino’s Burgers, opting to split the Monster Pastrami Combo. Of the three roadside burger joints we visited, Rabinovitch and I agreed this was the meal we would easily return to Boyle Heights for, especially since Dino’s is open late. Plus, where else can you watch telenovelas in a turquoise 1960s banquette over pastrami chili cheese fries? (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At one of the turquoise formica banquettes at Dino’s Burgers, we ate a Monster Pastrami Combo. You better come hungry for this meal. The beef patty is actually wrapped in pastrami and cheese. Then there are the sliced pickles, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions and Thousand Island dressing, all of it amazingly squeezed into a sesame bun. The chili fries are covered in melted cheese, grilled onions and thin-sliced pastrami. You get the jalapeño peppers on the side and if you ask nicely, they’ll cut the burger in half for you. Dino’s has been serving its pastrami plates up since 1968 and they are delicious. The meal includes a large soft drink of your choice and we elected for an aqua de jamaica. Cost of the Monster Pastrami Combo: $10.89

Dino’s Burgers: 3200 East Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90023 | (323) 268-2199

2:30 pm – Jim’s Burgers #10

Where else can you order a pastrami sandwich at a drive-through? The ultimate slow fast food. The Jim’s Burgers #10 pastrami sandwich features the standard Mexican pastrami sandwich components: sliced pickles, mustard and thinly sliced pastrami in a French roll. The pastrami tasted more of sweet corned beef than the meat at Tom’s or Dino’s but we — amazingly — were still able to put some of it away. You can eat your sandwich behind the wheel or at the Jim’s outdoor counter. (Photo by Abbie Fentress Swanson/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Jim’s Burgers #10 was the only our roadside pastrami stop that didn’t require getting out of the car to order. After a few minutes at the drive-through, Martha handed us a neatly wrapped pastrami sandwich — for a moment we thought it was a burrito — then we hopped out of the car to eat it standing up at Jim’s outdoor counter. The Boyle Heights pastrami sandwich trifecta was in full effect: thinly-sliced pastrami, mustard and sliced pickles tucked into a French roll. The meat tasted more of sweet corned beef, Rabinovitch noted, than the pastrami we tried at Tom’s and Dino’s. Still, it went down the hatch. Cost of one pastrami sandwich: $7.36.

Jim’s Burgers #10: 1901 East 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033 | (323) 266-3886