March 23, 2010
Kosher in the conejo
The Agoura Meadows Shopping Center, an overgrown strip mall located in a particularly pastoral nook of the Conejo Valley, contains a surprisingly diverse array of international restaurants: Hong Kong Express, Italia Deli & Bakery and Sushi Ozekii flank an enormous Vons. Just around the corner are Alamo Mexican Grill and its unlikely neighbor, Falafel Grill, a Glatt kosher Israeli restaurant. Falafel Grill is the only establishment that provides outdoor seating; a midweek lunch finds a number of lone middle-aged men enjoying a shwarma plate and taking in the sun before heading back to the office to get down to business.
The interior is clean and spare, with mirrored walls and glass-covered, wood-grain-paneled tables. You order at the counter and wait for your name to be called; sometimes, if it’s not too busy, a server will duck out from behind the counter to deliver your dish. The menu is familiar Israeli fare: shwarma and kebabs available as pita sandwiches or on combo plates, joined by a variety of salads and vegetable dips. The counter is crammed full of a colorful array of imported Israeli treats and tzedakah boxes for various causes, the nearby fridge stocked with Prigat juice and a nonalcoholic malt beer as well as more common American beverages. Don’t be fooled by the sleek-looking AVTR can: Turns out it’s no Israeli innovation, just a Coke Zero dressed up to sell James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Upon closer inspection, Falafel Grill distinguishes itself from its pita stand peers as a more seriously religious institution: If the gigantic signs on the door didn’t make it clear, there is also a sink for ritual hand-washing tucked into a corner next to the condiments. A high shelf stocks siddurim, particularly appropriate to the season, and the posters on the walls are all images of Jerusalem, the Western Wall and black-clad Chasidic rebbes.
Husband-and-wife co-owners Amos and Vivian Parnes are affiliated with the local Chabad, which also provides their kosher certification. This is a matter of no small importance, as Falafel Grill is not just kosher but Glatt kosher. Glatt, which translates to “smooth,” is a frequently misunderstood term; people tend to regard as superkosher or a guarantee that meat is “high quality” in some general sense. In fact, it refers to a specific scriptural mandate that the lungs of an animal be free of blemishes or growths of any kind. While this has the effect of keeping ill animals out of the food system, its original intention was rather different: The prohibition against eating animals that are internally diseased stems from a law prohibiting the consumption of animals that have been savaged by another creature.
For all of its religious conviction, Falafel Grill is at heart a low-key place, busiest at lunch with locals looking to talk business over a hearty meal and some imported treats. A television plays Fox News at medium-low volume and no one listens; as the afternoon wears on, a couple of parties linger over spreadsheets and portfolios or Hebrew newspapers. The Parneses still work the counter; on a recent afternoon, Vivian handled the lunch rush with a pleasant if brusque efficiency before ducking out for a cigarette and a long talk with a customer taking advantage of the early spring sun.
Although Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants than most American cities, they are not nearly as numerous as their nonkosher counterparts, especially in communities as far-flung as Agoura. So there is a particularly familial feel at Falafel Grill, an almost insular focus on the traditions and culture of a specific subset of the Jewish community. It is comfortably foreign, the menu translating whatever might seem obscure.
The current special is a ground-chicken patty served in a pita sandwich, an excellent — and delicious — amalgamation of the American and Israeli. No matter what the dish, the food is consistently simple and tasty, the bright flavors of Israeli salad against tender, salty meat, with a little bit of creamy tahini, smoky baba ghanoush and a spicy tomato dip as sides. Manamit’s thin chocolate-covered wafers make an excellent dessert.
You might begin to imagine at this point that you have found your way to Israel, or at least someplace other than suburban Los Angeles. Driving away into the Ventura Freeway’s afternoon traffic is a rude awakening — luckily, Falafel Grill remains open and unchanging, always ready to welcome us back for more.