Sunday, December 30, 2012

Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Another Westside Icon Disappears With Closure of Junior's Deli

I was distraught when Anna's, the old school Italian ristorante with its red checkered tablecloths, encyclopedic menus, and ancient wait staff, closed its doors in 2010. I was - make that, still am - beside myself when they closed the Barnes & Noble at the corner of Pico and Westwood a year ago, taking away the Westside's last outpost of cozy-alone-in-a-crowd possibility. And tomorrow, after 53 years  of providing classic deli comfort food and ambience near the corner of Pico and Westwood, Junior's Delicatessen will close its doors.

Junior's iconic sign, with its mid-century joie de vivre,
has graced Westwood Boulevard for 53 years.
Photo by Shiho Nakaza

Shiho and I enjoyed a last brunch at the famed spot today. At around 10 a.m., the place was packed. We were told the wait was 30 minutes, which we accepted without protest. We fortified ourselves with coffee from Starbucks (me) and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (Shiho), since the counter was untypically packed with diners and in the chaos, there was no way to get just a cup of coffee. But it was forgiveable.

I stood around shyly in the restaurant's lobby when Shiho left to get coffee at CBTL. Since I've been on vacation for a couple of weeks, my interview skills are a bit rusty and my usual desire to question strangers is on hiatus. And it seemed, well, unseemly to chat up the throngs of Junior's fans, who like me, were experiencing gastronomic bereavement with our impending loss. But I eavesdropped on conversations about buying "our last corn rye," watched people take photos of each other in front of empty bakery cases and under the restaurant's signage, and marveled at the sheer volume of customers in general, who, as I was assured by Miguel at the front cashier desk, were not a typical Sunday crowd.

Love for sale: The bakery's last cakes,ever.

My friend Mark, who had grown up in the neighborhood, introduced me to Junior's years ago. He had raved about their scrambled eggs with lox and onions, which was available on the menu all day. I remember eating dinner there with him one night when the power went out for a couple of minutes and the restaurant was dark. Although the din of conversation ceased briefly,  I recall a strange feeling of reassurance despite the pitch black dining room, as if our companionship and the food on the table were a safeguard against any intrusion or discomfort. When the lights came on again a moment later, the sounds, sights, and smells of a bustling restaurant returned to focus as if nothing had happened. Since then, I have returned to Junior's faithfully over the years, alone or with friends, dependent upon the restaurant as one of those rare sanctuaries of delicious and wholesome food in a comfortable atmosphere.

This morning, through a window in the lobby, I could see several bakers working steadily to fill advance orders that must have been called in when the restaurant's closure was announced earlier this week. They were also making breads and rolls to supply the restaurant's needs, but cakes, babkas, and other baked goods were no longer being produced. Rows of pre-boxed bundt and pound cakes were stacked on top of the glass cases, like orphaned puppies hoping to find a loving home.

The inner workings of Junior's bakery, where industrious bakers
performed the last rites on a soon-to-be-abandoned kitchen.

Contained in what were normally bountiful and tempting cases of baked goods were two lonely trays of rugelach, a treat that has as many different spellings as it has flavors. As a faithful fan of the variety of Canter's bakery, I was never bowled over by the seemingly modest offerings at Junior's. However, knowing that the restaurant would be closed by the end of the next day made the last two pans of rugelach look like the crown jewels.

I bought a bagful of rugelach to nibble on with our coffee and now am regretting it, because at this late date, I have decided that they were the best rugelach I have ever had. The chocolate chip, of course, won out over the more authentic walnut and cinnamon (see reference to "The Lesser Babka.") Not only were the cookies generously laden with tiny chocolate chips, but they were crisp and flaky and melted in our mouths. They were almost diet-conscious, formed as they were in miniature, about a third the size of typical rugelach specimens. However, I would hesitate to ascribe to them the magic number of a 100 calorie nosh - especially as we ate about half a dozen each while waiting to be seated.
The last chocolate chip rugelach at Junior's -
not to be confused with "arugula." These go
better with coffee.

I love sweet and sour cabbage soup because of Junior's. But sadly, it is only their version that I love - a piquant broth of tomatoes, cabbage, with generous chunks of tender flanken. Since then, I have tried it at every deli in L.A. without discovering any other version that I liked nearly as well, which didn't really matter when I thought that Junior's would be there forever.

I had talked the soup up so well that Shiho ordered it (see her awesome sketch!) today with her lox and eggs. Ironically, it did not contain the fabled beef chunks, which when you know a restaurant is closing the next day, makes some sense. But I was disappointed nonetheless. A part-time vegetarian who had never had the soup before, Shiho was nonplussed by the absence of meat, and loved the soup with its tangy broth. She packed it to go, joking that she would add bits of her Honeybaked ham from Christmas dinner to give it a meaty embellishment.

Breakfast of champions: Lox, eggs, and onions
Several items have been 86'd from the menu - including the actual menus themselves. Miguel said that they were all given away or pilfered, and will probably appear on Ebay soon as collector's items. We had to order from stained paper to-go menus, one of which I snatched off a prep station and stashed in my purse as a memento.

There is talk of relocating Junior's elsewhere. Although most people I have spoken to have said that it hasn't been their favorite deli, you wouldn't know it from the crowds that have gathered for one last meal there. Landmarks like it make a neighborhood, are depended on by locals, and treasured by visitors, who will travel a loving pilgrimage for miles to a favorite spot.

I now need to invoke the First Amendment. GMS has never really been a forum for any deep controversy. However, with all the blame game stories about the closure of Junior's that point the finger at greedy landlords or the tarnishing of a restaurant's legacy, I feel that I want to put my mandelbrot where my mouth is.

Say what you will about the public's refusal to pay $13 for a sandwich or the changes in the Los Angeles demographic, i.e., thinly veiled references to a dwindling population of Jewish food lovers. However, when you can get a native Okinawan and a Filipina-American to walk into a deli (sounds like a bad joke, nu?) and get them to kvell over a bowl of soup and some flaky pastries, you've done more for international relations than the UN has done in seven decades.
Simply called "cabbage soup" on
Junior's menu,the name belies a
robust and flavorful broth.
Photo by Shiho Nakaza

As is the case with any tradition that has become over time, an integral part of what we consider America's cuisine, the delicatessen is a dying art form. Food is an important aspect of modern Jewish culture that has the potential to encourage in non-Jews an appreciation for that culture and its history in a warm and profound way. The melting pot at the corners of Pico and Westwood, which offers a variety of cuisine from every corner of the world, from lamb vindaloo to homemade soba, will be much diminished indeed with the absence of Junior's Deli. Very much like a bowl of cabbage soup without flanken.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why My Nephew Should Be President Someday

In the midst of all the 2012 election hoopla, Seiji wrote this letter for a class assignment on persuasion. It really impressed me as a no-nonsense approach to a problem, an example of how even a ten-year-old could find a simple and economic solution. If only balancing the national budget without sacrificing the necessities were that simple! Read and discuss:

Mural of spot-on J.R.R. Tolkien quote, borrowed from here.

Dear Lunch Ladies:

I am Seiji, a ten-year-old in Omuro Sensei’s class.  I am writing to you about our lunch closing time.  Please extend the time for selling lunch so that the fifth graders who come late to lunch will still get food.  I have a few reasons for this.

If a kid comes late to the cafeteria there will be no lunch for him.  He will either starve, or beg for food from other people, which isn’t very polite.  In other words, if he did get lunch he would be eating well and his parents won’t have to be concerned about him starving.  If he tells his mom about that he had to starve at school with no food, she would then make his food every day so then you wouldn’t get as much money as before and your profit would go down.

Another reason is that if he doesn’t get enough food he will not have the energy he needs to study in class.  And if he does not pay attention in class he will have to ask the teacher too many questions and will get in trouble with the teacher for not listening, which is not fair because he just didn’t get enough lunch.  If he doesn’t listen or notice, he will not know how to do his assignment and would have to call a friend to ask questions.  This would probably annoy his friend, especially if there are a lot of questions.

Finally, a student without enough food wouldn’t have the energy to finish his homework.  He would either complain to his mom, who may be tired from work, that he’s hungry or just stay up late doing homework. Or he might have to do most of his homework in the morning, especially if he has a lot of activities like sports or music like I do.  The next day in school, he would be tired and in P.E. he would try as little as an ant to do the activities, which would affect his grade if this cycle continues daily.

I know that extending lunch may cost the time and extra money.  However, the food left over could be eaten by you, or can be put in the refrigerator and be used for another day.  This way you can keep the profit, and may save time and money because the food is already cooked.

Again, please take this seriously and extend your time for selling lunch for the good of our grades, energy, and stomachs.  Thank you for your time in reading this letter and again, please consider this suggestion as a way to keep the money going.



Epilogue: Seiji's friend, whose parents own a restaurant, wrote a similar letter addressing the quality of the cafeteria's food. If the children are our future, we're in good hands.