When Micah Wexler and Mike Kassar opened their first Jewish deli in downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, they set out to push the traditional cuisine forward while simultaneously staying true to its roots. Four years and three locations later, Wexler’s has done just that: serving mouthwatering, nationally recognized food in a vibrant setting with custom-designed murals by visual artist Gregory Siff.
This blend of new school and old school approaches makes sense if you’ve ever met the pair—who make it a point to be in their restaurants every day—in person. For both, Wexler’s embodies the tradition of family, sharing, and community that was instilled in them at a young age (through Wexler’s Jewish and Kassar’s Lebanese roots) while paying homage to their mutual love of hip-hop and L.A.
We sat down with the duo to talk about making Wexler’s Deli a reality, the art of preparing the perfect smoked fish, and secret menu items that don’t come cheap.
You two have been a team for a long time. How did you first meet?
Mike: Micah and I actually met during college at the hotel school at Cornell University. Micah was always laughing and making jokes and I had never really thought much of the guy. One day, I see him and his friends laughing and walking down the stairs and he’s got a funny walk going on—I have a little bit of a funny walk—so I immediately think he’s imitating me and laughing with his friends about it. So, I go up to him and say, “Yo man, you imitating my walk?”, and that’s the first time we really talked to each other. It turned out he had sprained his ankle playing touch football, but the rest was history.
How did the concept for Wexler’s Deli come alive?
Micah: In our first restaurant, Mezze, we did a deli night every Sunday. When it closed in 2012, Grand Central Market approached us asked us to do a stall there. We tossed around a lot of ideas but kept coming back to the idea that L.A. needed a better class of deli.
One of the delis that I grew up with, Langers, is fantastic. But no other delis really stood out in my mind because it’s a lot of industrial food. Our whole thing was: let’s focus on the greatest hits deli menu, make as much of it in-house as we possibly can and go back to the old-world craft technique. Now, we put this really traditional, time-honored food out there and do it in an environment that feels more about us and not our grandparents’ generation.
You’re known for your smoked fish. What goes into making it so good?
Micah: A lot, actually. I would say out of all the things that we do that smoking fish is probably my favorite because it’s the real marriage of craftsmanship and technique with some artistry.
We use a salmon that’s from the Faroe Islands that’s probably the benchmark in the world for salmon aquaculture. Then, we cure our lox, which essentially means we pack it in salt, sugar, spices, some herbs, and some citrus and then it sits in that mixture for about two days. It’s much more delicate and you get intense flavors. (For 99 percent of the lox world out there, the fish is brined. That’s because it’s easy, the fish is dropped into a giant vat of salt water essentially, and that’s how it goes through the curing process. But it doesn’t produce the best quality fish).
After that, we wash and dry the fish. Our drying process is actually really important to tighten the fish, and also concentrate those flavors. Then we smoke it for about an hour and then we slice everything by hand.
What about the rest of your menu? How did you determine the right recipe for each dish?
Micah: There’s not really a knowledge base for a very traditional Jewish deli, so I went through a process of trying to research as much about it as I could and then trying out different recipes. Curing and smoking and making pickles … it was just sort of a trial and error process. I often cook from a place of taste memory. I think of a time and place and a taste in my mind and then translate that memory and that experience into something on the plate. I keep cracking away at it until suddenly I eat that certain thing and i’m like, “Oh, this is the one! This tastes like when I was 11 years old.”
Micah, you grew up in a traditional Jewish home. How did your family react the first time they tried your food?
Micah: My grandmother had passed so my grandfather was the guy who held the standard. When I was working on the pastrami sandwich in particular, he was definitely the benchmark. If it didn’t pass muster with my grandfather, then I had to keep working on it. The first time I made it he took one bite out of it and he just looks at me and he shakes his head, “uh-uh (negative).” I asked him, “What don’t you like about it?” He said, “It’s just not right, Micah.” A couple weeks later I ask him again: He takes a bite out of it, he gets this smile across his face says, “Now, you’re talking, kid.” So once it passed papa, it was good to go.
Are there any secret menu items?
Mike: Yea, the KGB. You come in and ask for the KGB, we’ll serve you our lox topped with 30 grams of the finest arctic caviar you can find. But it doesn’t come cheap: $120.