Everyone in the restaurant business has a story. Some, though, go a little deeper than others.
Like the story from Allan Ratman, owner of Katella Deli in Los Alamitos, CA.
“Have you seen the movie Defiance?” he asks. “That was my parents. They went through the Holocaust.”
He pauses, letting the images soak in. Thoughts of the hunger, the pain, the horror block out the bustling deli for just a moment. “They lived in the forest,” Ratman continues. “They were the sole survivors from each of their families.”
And that, Ratman says, is where it all began.
“My Dad was the baker in the forest,” he says. “When they came to New York, he got a job in a bakery. He had an uncle in California who said, 'Come out.’ Dad moved here because Orange County was growing.”
In the beginning, back in 1965, it was as simple as selling rye bread to the Jewish community. Today, the 16,500 square foot Katella Deli is what Ratman calls, “An aberration in the industry: the marriage of a bakery and an restaurant.”
As a Jewish Deli, Katella serves corned beef, pastrami, fresh roasted turkey, brisket—all available on rye bread or challa. They have matzo ball soup, chicken noodle soup, and sweet and sour cabbage soup, which Ratman calls “mainstays” of the menu.
“We’re the quintessential Jewish Deli,” he says. “I’m not an historian in Jewish delidom, but I suspect the seeds come from New York and the Jews than came here brought their Eastern European delicacies with them.”
He points out the Gefilte Fish on the menu as a Jewish staple, served with homemade horseradish, and adds, “It’s whatever you grew up with—that’s what always tastes better. We help continue it from generation to generation. Every holiday has something that makes it a cultural event. It’s a liking and a love for the food that never ends.”
It’s why they cook the pastrami on the premises, and make the Kasha Varnishkas, and the cheese blintzes, and the potato latkes, and the hand-twisted challa bread. It’s why they offer Chopped Liver, and Fresh Cold Beet Borscht, and a Liverwurst sandwich.
You can get the Grandmother Shirley, made with Eastern Whitefish and Cream Cheese, or the Francheesey, which is grilled knockwurst with bacon and melted American cheese on an onion roll. Sure, you can get a hamburger, but why, when you can get an open faced Hot Turkey Sandwich, or Corned Beef and Cabbage?
Or come for breakfast to get an omelette or hot cakes, or any of the Deli Breakfast Favorites such as Lox, Eggs and Onions, or Kippers and Eggs, or Matzo Brie.
The restaurant serves 2,000 people a day, most of them regular visitors, and perhaps half of them actually Jewish.
To prepare, the kitchen staff are in constant motion, rolling, mixing, stuffing, cutting, stirring, chopping, peeling and doing hours of prep work. The storage areas are filled with sacks of different kinds of flour, and Ratman has his eye on it all. “I don’t eat; I analyze,” he says.
We did our share of analyzing, too, tasting everything from the bagels to the famous Sam’s Skyscraper (a triple decker with hot pastrami, fresh roasted turkey, swiss cheese, russian dressing on rye bread, served with cole slaw) to a series of drinks and shakes, and desserts like the Black Forest Cake.
In fact, there is a huge selection of Combination Sandwiches, including the French Dip with Au Jus, the traditional Reuben with your choice of corned beef or pastrami, and the Times Square, which adds creamy cole slaw and Russian dressing to the sandwich.
Pair them with one of the fountain treats, which include New York Egg Cream, Chocolate Phosphate, Malts and Shakes in vanilla, chocolate or strawberry, and even a Root Beer Float, for the full deli experience.
After 40 years in the area, people have their favorites—in fact, some people drive long distances just to get one of soups (Split Pea, Sweet and Sour Cabbage, Chicken with Matzo Ball, and more), or to pop a zucchini muffin in their mouth, or to dip their onion rings in the homemade BBQ sauce.
Katella Deli is also an amazing bakery, filled with breads, pastries and desserts that can make the choice a difficult one. “We bake virtually everything from scratch,” says Ratman. “We make all our Danish, rolls, bagels from scratch. We mix the dough, put it on racks, age it in the fridge, boil the bagels in water, put them in the oven—we do it all.”
It’s a sprawling facility, filled with booths, fireplaces, bar stools and smiling servers—all managed by Flo Underwood, Front House Manager and Joe Graziano, Restaurant Manager (pictured). Case after bakery case is filled with decorated cakes, pastries, danishes, breads, muffins, cookies, and more cookies.
Katella Deli is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just be sure to pass by the bakery cases on your way out to pick up a box of cookies, a few bagel crisps, or a pastry.
And, although Ratman didn’t tell us this, we understand that every day trucks pull up to donate leftover breads and pastries to the homeless shelters in the area.
Thoughts of the hunger, and the people who make it easier, intrude again. The baker has his job to do, and Ratman knows it.
His parents would be proud.
See our blog from the Los Angeles tour, here.
Visit Katella Deli when you are in the Los Angeles area:
4470 Katella Avenue
Los Alamitos, CA 90720
This is a Raves & Faves Featured Restaurant. For more images from Katella Deli, visit iraves.