February 24, 2005
East of Western— a Kosher Cornucopia
Kosher east of Western? Out here on the edge of the eruv that runs along Western Avenue (the pole-top strung boundary that allows traditional Jews to carry on Shabbat), I live with my family in an old area of Los Angeles a few miles west of downtown called Country Club Park. It's pretty much off the Jewish map.
A few Purims back, a fellow congregant dropped off a communal shalach manot (gift) basket and wondered, "Where on earth is this?"
Although it's a neighborhood with a Jewish past -- it once housed Congregation Mogen David just a few blocks south -- it is now populated by a mix of African American, Anglo, Korean and Hispanic households. More Jewish families are moving in every year, but it's still an area where the "Jew" you might meet spells their surname "Ju." It's an area long on kimchi but short on kosher -- or so I thought.
We keep kosher. But sometimes the schlep west for certified provisions becomes just too much, especially when we get home too late from work or from picking up the children to stop in at that easternmost outpost of kosher consumables, the well-stocked Kosher Club on Pico Boulevard just east of La Brea Avenue.
So, over the years we have learned to venture east and scout out the various ethnic grocers and chain stores in search of kosher eats. The ethnic markets, in particular, allow you to shop with your neighbors and partake, through the convergence of international kosher food production and Los Angeles' expanding ethnic food markets, varieties of kosher ethnic foods that might not be available at Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons.
If you work downtown and drive home westward, it's amazing what you are driving by in terms of kosher foods. However, one needs to remember that the proprietors and workers in these stores are all kosherly clueless.
If you walk into one of these markets and ask, "Where's the kosher salsa?" you are sure to be met with a blank look. But if you turn the packages, scour the labels and carefully look for the kosher certification symbols (heksher), a bounty of kosher products will appear.
At a local Greek restaurant and market with a truly unlikely name as a source of kosher provisions -- Papa Cristo's at 2771 W. Pico Blvd. -- I have found, grape leaves, roasted red peppers, olive oil, pasta, sauce, dried lentils and bulgar. (My wife's Sephardic uncle, whose family is from Rhodes, likes to lunch there.) For people with Israel on their minds and stomachs, you can buy kosher mixes for falafel and tabouli, as well as fresh pita bread. Fans of Sephardic cooking will be pleased to find kosher frozen filo dough, as well as okra.
Across the street at St. Sofia, the Greek Orthodox Church, I also found during the annual Greek festival a vendor selling mezuzot. Go figure.
Not far from Papa Cristo's, at 2949 W. Pico Blvd., is the old reliable Smart and Final, which, of course, has stores all over town. This location carries all the usual kosher stuff that the others do: pasta sauces, black beans, hot dogs, ice cream, even artichoke hearts, although the can is big enough to feed a family of 20. One frantic Friday afternoon, with company coming over for Shabbat, I found kosher wine there for Kiddush.
Farther east at 1516 W. Pico, a few blocks west of the Harbor Freeway and a short drive from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the now-ubiquitous 99 Cents-Only Store -- a chain with an unexpected cornucopia of discount kosher foods. One year as a Purim prank, I was easily able to prepare a shalach manot basket for a friend made entirely of kosher 99 Cents-Only Store items. This location carries kosher canned salmon and tuna, hearts of palm and pickles, as well as ketchup, mustard and enchilada sauce.
Chain supermarkets in the area also carry an array of kosher products. The Ralphs on Seventh Street and Western Avenue (just behind the Wiltern Theater and a few blocks from Wilshire Boulevard Temple) has been our outpost for hot dogs, salamis and packaged bagels. (No kosher chicken yet, but we're hoping.)
In the spring, they do carry a selection of Passover items. On the bakery counter, though not kosher, I have also spotted challah.
The Food 4 Less at 1700 W. Sixth St. is another good place for east of Westerners to forage for kosher food. Our three boys seem to run through about two pounds of cookies a week, and this large and modern location has great prices on a couple of kosher brands. They also stock kosher waffles in the industrial-sized box.
Where we call home is on the edge of Koreatown, and being like most Jews, fanciers of Asian foods, we have ventured into several local markets. One of the nicest, the Galleria Market on Western and Olympic Boulevard, has a surprising array of hard-to-find kosher foods, including tofu, sesame oil in large economical cans, several brands of soy sauce and a wonderful selection of fresh Asian fruits and vegetables.
When you can find kosher, fresh whole wheat tortillas in a Korean supermarket, you know that culinary multiculturalism has crossed a new Los Angeles threshold. Don't have enough utensils to serve kosher Chinese? Buy a package of 100 pairs of throwaway wooden chopsticks there for only a $1.50.
By the way, in the basement of the same building is a Korean restaurant supply store, where they have well-priced large bamboo mats, perfect for your sukkah.
Jons Market originally opened in Vons market locations -- on the old signs they just changed one letter. Now with locations all over Hollywood and Midcity, Jons offers a cosmopolitan selection of ethnic foods.
Our closest, at 3334 W. Eighth Street near Normandie Avenue, is located in a Hispanic neighborhood and carries a fiery selection of kosher hot sauces and salsas. For true lovers of capsaicin, it carries salsa verde, as well as jalepeno, ancho chile and pico de gallo salsas (heksher given by the Vaad Hakashrut Consejo Comunitario Ashkenazi de Mexcio).
On the same shelf, I found the now-essential Sriracha Hot (the bright red stuff in the squeeze bottle with the rooster). Also available at Jons were coconut bars, a complete line of Jons nuts, including pumpkin seeds, Spanish nuts and almonds, plus pitted prunes.
Kosher teas were the most intriguing kosher find, including alfalfa con menta, yerbabuena (spearmint), savila (aloe vera) and te de limon (lemon grass tea) -- all kosher.
Not kosher but of culinary interest to Jewish outliers -- and on the routes between downtown and the Westside -- are Brooklyn Bagels on 2217 W. Beverly Blvd., just west of Alvarado Street, and the venerable Langer's Deli at 704 S. Alvarado St., across from a recently cleaned up MacArthur Park.
Brooklyn Bagels in a very haimish location and sells egg and poppy bagels, as well as cheese, pumpernickel, rye and other varieties.
Langer's, open since 1947, has a full deli menu, including its world-famous pastrami sandwiches, as well as cheese blintzes and whitefish. Up front at the counter, they sell their rye bread, as well as homemade pickles. Most items on the deli menu are available for take out. If you call ahead, they even have curb service.
In Los Angeles' downtown revival, kosher has also revived. Two kosher restaurants that serve the largely Persian business crowd have been operating for several years in the garment district (I bought fabric here from a Jewish-owned store to have kippot made for my son's bar mitzvah).
At Cohen Restaurant at 316 E. Pico Blvd., (entrance in an alley just off Pico), you will find a menu of mostly Persian kabobs: chicken, beef, lamb and vegetarian. Afshan, also Persian, at 112 W. Ninth St., has a larger menu that, in addition to kabobs, offers stews, sandwiches and, if you have the children with you, American food -- a burger with fries and chicken nuggets. Both restaurants have take-out menus.
If Shabbat is coming and you are without flowers, go just a few blocks east to the corner of San Pedro and Eighth streets and check out the several storefront flower markets. Here you can buy the best Shabbat bouquets for only $5.
Work or live downtown and need a bottle of Kiddush wine? They have it -- all flavors and sizes -- at the Grand Central Market (317 S. Broadway) at Santo's Liquor, near the market's Broadway entrance. In addition, toward the west entrance of the market is A & B Coffee, where when I recently stopped by, the proprietor patiently waited while I perused cans of kosher pink, black and white beans.
And, just a block away, you will find evidence of those Jewish pioneers who shopped before you. Directly across the street from 213 S. Broadway, embedded in the sidewalk in front of a Civic Center parking lot, you will discover a plaque commemorating the site where in 1873, Congregation B'nai B'rith erected the city's first Jewish house of worship. That congregation is today Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
See, it all comes back to east of Western.
This year, I thought it a treat and a relief to my internal Jewish compass to drive just a few miles east to attend The Kosher World Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center, an event that included several aisles of companies hawking kosher foods
I happily toured the show, snacking all the way, secretly knowing that some of this stuff would soon work its way through America's multiethnic food chain to my neighborhood.
Edmon J. Rodman was editor of the L.A. Jewish Population Survey and author of "Nomo: the Tornado Who Took America by Storm" (Lowell House, 1996). He is a founding member of the Movable Minyan.