HOT FOR PASTRAMI

Norton’s Pastrami is all of 560 square feet, four tables, each with four bar stools, and five bar stools at the counter – it’s a small deli with a lively atmosphere. The owner, Harry Vamos, who is half Hungarian and half Czech, is happily celebrating Norton’s second anniversary. Before this endeavor, Vamos was a commercial photographer for automotive advertising. He foresaw the digital age and says he was not interested in transitioning so he turned to the next best thing: food.

Growing up in West L.A., Vamos’s favorite hang-out was Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City (it’s still there). He says he not only loved the pastrami sandwiches, but the atmosphere as well. He created his own thing in Norton’s by combining East and West Coast styles. For instance, when remodeling he discovered a brick wall, which is very New York. On the other hand, he has a shrine to his restaurant namesake and faithful friend of 16 years, Norton, a Jack Russell Terrier (very California). Norton’s paw prints welcome customers as they walk through the front door.

“Not being formally trained can be a plus,” Vamos explains. “I don’t take short cuts ‘cause I don’t know them; I do it the way Mom used to.” (On Norton’s opening day, Vamos’s mom apparently said, ‘Oh my God. I thought photography was bad and now you have to go and open a restaurant!’)

Vamos rightfully brags about his meats being roasted on the premises, about his slaw and red potato salads being homemade, and about his matzo balls being authentic. With help from his best friend, David Miller, a 20-year veteran chef from Honolulu who flew over to guide Vamos through the ins and outs of the kitchen, recipes were developed by trial and error. Eventually, Vamos took over; this was his first experience in front of the grill, where all the sandwiches are prepared.

In most new restaurants, there’s always at least one special employee who sticks around through thick and thin. Here, it’s Jesus Isidro, who began as dishwasher and worked his way to full-on grill cook.

Two friends and I lunched at Norton’s one Saturday. Since the tables were full, we took three seats at the counter. Right in front of me was a jar of kosher pickles. Yes, they were crunchy and appropriately picked. I was hopeful.

Out came the fries and house onion rings with a side of ranch dressing (a nice change from ketsup). Lauren Benarth, cashier, hostess and watchful eye, made several popular selections for us to sample. First, came the Pastrami Dip. The meat is dipped into boiling au jus and is then stashed inside a French roll. As with all the pastrami sandwiches we sampled, the meat was tender, rich and well-spiced.

“The next sandwich is most commonly ordered,” Benarth boasted. I could see why. The Pastrami Cheese on sourdough with grilled onions, tomatoes and cheddar cheese was killer. The PLT (pastrami, lettuce and tomato) was named after Vamos’s mom’s favorite sandwich – the BLT. The pastrami is grilled crispy like bacon, and is combined with lettuce, tomato and a spicy sauce. This was my favorite.

Naturally, we tasted the Reuben on rye (pastrami and sauerkraut) with spicy mustard; a must in a deli. Benarth suggested we try the boiled corned beef just to see the difference in flavor and texture. A quick tutorial on the difference between the two meats: corned beef is picked in brine and then cooked. It’s much less fatty than pastrami, and therefore less rich. Pastrami is also brined, but it’s then dried, seasoned with various herbs, and smoked.

We couldn’t leave without biting into the barbeque beef sandwich drenched in house made, spicy sauce. And, I know a good matzo ball when I taste it, and I can attest that Norton’s variety has perfect density and airy texture.

“If the food is good, people will come,” Vamos believes.

Add me to the list of Norton’s customers who say, “It’s the best pastrami sandwich I’ve ever eaten.”

Norton’s Pastrami (965-3210) is located at 18 West Figueroa Street. It is open Monday through Saturday 11 am to 8 pm.

“I don’t take short cuts ‘cause I don’t know them; I do it the way Mom used to”

– Harry Vamos, owner of Norton’s Pastrami