Good things come to those who wait. Or, at least good pastrami does - brining, drying, rubbing, and smoking takes time, after all. So it’s fitting that we were made to wait for the reopening of Johnny’s Pastrami, an iconic all-night stand in West Adams that closed in 2015 after a near 60-year run, and has passed through the hands of a few high-profile chefs in the time since.
Well, after five years, Johnny’s is back in business, with a geographically specific new name - presumably to differentiate themselves from that other old-school pastrami stand in Culver City - a chef who rose to fame at nearby Mizlala, and a menu that expands upon the original’s late-night roots (and not just because it was easier than replacing the giant “BURGERS, PASTRAMI, DOGS” neon sign out front). But is it all worth the wait? Here are our first thoughts on the new(ish) Johnny’s West Adams.
If the neon sign doesn’t clue you in, your nose will. You can smell Johnny’s pastrami being smoked from about a block away, so well before you get in line, you know what you’re in for. And you won’t be disappointed. That pastrami is smoky, slightly peppery, and sliced super-thick (you can - and should - order it by the pound), but it’s best as a sandwich. Served simply on marble rye from Tartine Bakery with a dab of deli mustard, it’s not the kind of towering showstopper you’ll find in some delis, but what it lacks in altitude, it more than makes up for in attitude. This is a big, bold showcase for the deeply smoked brisket, the bite of the bark, and the semi-rendered fat cap (we always prefer our pastrami a little fatty), with an emphasis on big - this is also a meal unto itself, so if you’re looking to try a couple different things here, we’d recommend ordering a half sandwich.
Or, alternatively, you could order the French Dip Pastrami. An updated version of a sandwich served at the original Johnny’s, it features thinly sliced pastrami piled onto a pillowy French roll with mustard and pickles, and while it’s definitely not minuscule, it’s a bit more manageable. If you’re not into quarter-inch-thick slices of brisket, the paper-thin pastrami still packs plenty of flavor, and we really liked the way it plays off the sharp and tangy pickles and French mustard. Given its name, we will say it’s kind of odd that it doesn’t come au jus, but the pastrami is still plenty moist, and on days when the temperature tops 90, we actually prefer this one over the super-heavy pastrami sandwich.
Another updated take on an original Johnny’s item - and the supersized version of their cheeseburger - the Johnny Burger stacks caramelized onions and (of course) pastrami onto a patty that’s already swimming in thousand island dressing and cheese. Is it overkill? Definitely. Should you order it? Depends. There’s a lot of everything happening with this one - it’s messy, massive, and each bite is sharp, smoky, and tangy (often at the same time). We actually liked it best when we ordered it on a day when Johnny’s had sold out of their thick-cut pastrami; instead, they topped the burger with the thin-sliced variety, which added subtle flavor and texture to a burger that definitely needs to be turned down a tad. So maybe ask if they’ll make it that way for you?
You might think ordering a crispy chicken sandwich at a palace of pastrami is blasphemy. We’re begging you to reconsider. Featuring well-seasoned, perfectly crispy (yet still juicy) chicken slathered in a spicy sauce and dotted with the appropriate amount of pickles, it’s served on a brioche potato bun and is absolutely delicious. It’s also absolutely huge, which makes it a great option for sharing, or storing away for later - because you will be thinking about this one again.
The most expensive of Johnny’s sides, probably because it could be a meal on its own, Johnny’s knish is a deli staple done right. The crust is flaky, and the insides - a mixture of potatoes, carmelized onions, sauerkraut, and pastrami - are flavorful and complex. It’s great when drizzled (or dunked) in some of the accompanying gravy.