VIDA BITES Classic LA: Canter's
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
My love affair with the Jewish Deli began when I was 14 years old. For four years (five days a week) I would take the subway into Manhattan to attend high-school at East 33rd and Park Avenue. Once the train would pull into Grand Central around 7:40 a.m., the countdown began; will I make it on time? I was one stop away from my morning delight: A fresh, warm bagel with melted cream cheese. Sometimes, I would switch it up with melted butter, but cream cheese always prevailed. I never knew something as simple as fresh bread with a melted topping could give me such joy and set the tone for a productive day. (That was the hope, at least.)
Once the subway doors opened at 33rd Street, it was a timed race. I had to rush to the end of the block, get over four lanes of traffic, go to my favorite (no name) Jewish Deli, wait on line to order my bagel, wait to get my bagel, calculate the timing till the next traffic light, run across the street, go through the medal detector, pray the escalators aren't on the fritz, and make it in my seat before the first bell rings. It took stealth precision, but it was do-able.
Recently, I took an unexpected trip to Los Angeles and stayed within the Fairfax District. For the budding tourist this is a great location. The tourism-trifecta-trap of CBS Studios, the Fairfax Farmers Market, and The Grove shopping center are steps away. When I realized I would be staying by Beverly and Fairfax, my lighthouse beamed: I was within walking distance to Canter's Deli. YES!
Canters is a Los Angeles classic. Since 1931 Canter's has served up reliable (and oh-so-necessary) Jewish Deli fare. This authentic, old-school diner with east coast roots, is a popular late-night, hangout. The location on 419 Fairfax, north of Beverly Boulevard, was purchased in 1953 by the Canter brothers. It was once a movie theater, which is evident from the art-deco theater marquee that has since been transformed into clever signage for the establishment. Canter's was voted as the #1 best pastrami by the Los Angeles Times. The pastrami sandwich seems to be the go-to favorite, but I'm a loyalist; I
only eat pastrami when I go to Katz's Deli on Houston. No, I was yearning for something else . . . something different. That "something," was a tuna melt sandwich.
It is my first morning in Los Angeles, and I'm wide awake at 5 a.m. For some odd reason, I'm fiercely craving a tuna melt sandwich. I don't understand why? I haven't had one in 9 years! The craving was uncontrollable. It was pitch black outside, and I was not about to walk the four blocks it took to get to Canter's in the dark. By sunrise, I was out the door. The jovial hostess takes me to a large, melon-colored booth, and I wonder if this is the same booth Don Draper sat in, on the premiere episode of Mad Men, season seven. The ambiance is as I remembered; comforting. I am reminded of all the previous times I've been here over the years, when I was a native Angelino. I look up, and there it is: the stained glassed ceiling of autumn leaves; it never fails to remind me of my favorite song by Nat King Cole.
After I've ordered, I take a good look around and notice the diverse staff. Young, middle-aged, heavy, thin, each of various ethnicities. Ageism does not seem to exist in this vast space. This comes as a welcome surprise. L.A. is notorious for requesting the proverbial head-shot (no joke) along with your resume, anytime you apply for a restaurant gig. Seeing the diversity in the staff made me appreciate Canter's even more. (Not to mention the fact that during the Black Lives Matter protests, Canter's showed their support by giving out food and water.)
My breakfast arrives and it's better than I remember. The white tuna is heartily spread between two toasted slice's of rye bread with melted, cheddar cheese. It comes with a choice of kettle chips, fresh fruit, or a salad. I decided on the house fries, and they are humongous. The crunch of the rye bread, coupled with the goey-ness of the cheddar cheese on top of the tuna, made my body tingle. As I nosh on my melt, I wonder who the creative genius was who invented this fish/cheese combination. Turns out the melt was created in 1965 at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Charleston, and was born from a mistake; what a wonderful mistake.
Legend has it, that one day at the Woolworth's counter, a customer ordered a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread with mayo. On a shelf, over the griddle, sat a bowl of tuna salad teetering on the edge. Through divine intervention from the food gods, it happened to fall on top of the grilled cheese, and a comfort food classic was born.