Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Kosher Delis and Other Restaurant Memories of a Southern California Childhood

I was born in L.A. and grew up there and Orange County. I'm so old that I remember going to the long-closed "original" Canter Bros. Deli in Boyle Heights, and I've also been to the still-there Canter's on Fairfax about a million times because my Granny Annie went there at least couple of times a week for lunch, plus after CJW card nights. Her brother Max was a Nate & Al's guy (it's technically just "Nate and Al," no possessive, but I never heard it said that way), especially the back room which was the breakfast/lunch hangout for a bunch of self-described momzers who shared an interest in horse racing. Groucho Marx was the head momzer and chief jokester, although by the time I started coming around with Uncle Max he was in a wheelchair pushed by a young woman whose name I can't remember who was supposed to be taking advantage  of him. Got me. I was way to young to know what a "golddigger" was. I just liked the jokes the old men told.

BUT my favorite deli of all time was Berman's in Burbank. Berman always had a cigar stub in his mouth and worked grumblingly behind the counter, while Mrs. Berman waited tables. The food was great, and Berman (his first name may have Al, and it's also possible he didn't have one) was great at insulting customers he liked. The only thing was, both Bermans were concentration camp rescuees who grew up speaking Yiddish, then learned to speak English in Leeds, a British place a with a notoriously impenetrable accent, which means you had work really hard to understand them.

And while not a deli, the best pizza I ever had in Calif. was at Murray's in Long Beach. I mention it only  because Murray was the only Jew I ever met who ran a pizzeria. Kosher? Not a chance!

(Berman's *may* have been kosher. Perhaps a Rabbi blessed his cigars. I never asked, but should have.)

Another great deli was a Romanian one near Hollywood and Vermont. I don't remember the name; I think the sign just said "Deli." Pappa was huge, with a huge potbelly, and would give you samples of anything he'd just cooked that he thought you might like to taste. This is where I ate my first stuffed grape leaves. Yum!

THE WORST RESTAURANT I remember eating at as a kid was Walter's Minnesota Style Chow Mein in Anaheim or possibly Santa Ana. It was so awful that my parents took friends there sometimes instead of trying to describe how bad it was with mere words.

A good super upscale Chinese place I loved -- as did my parents, but it was expensive so we went there only a couple of times a year -- was the New Moon. One day my friend Ed Flavin's father took the two of us there, but it was too crowded to get a table. That was when I learned, from Ed Sr., about bribing headwaiters to jump a line of people waiting to eat. (Ed Sr. had some sort of executive job and mucho $$$.)

Maybe some restaurants are better in memory than they really were, but not necessarily. I loved Lawry's The Prime Rib as a kid -- someplace where I had to put on a tie, and we went maybe once a year -- and a couple months ago I ate at their Las Vegas one and it was just as good as I remembered.

Nowadays, my wife and I cook for ourselves nearly all the time. We make better food than we can get in most restaurants around here at any price, and we generally haven't been going out much lately partly for budget reasons and partly because we've become such homebodies.

But we still love a good meal. I think I'll fire up my charcoal grill tomorrow. Yum!


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