May 8, 2003
For shoppers seeking Middle Eastern products, Los Angeles offers endless variations on the Israeli experience.
Elbows out. That was the lesson that began my initiation into the ways of Valley Produce market in Reseda. I'd just returned home from a year-abroad program in Jerusalem, and one of the most acute of my withdrawal symptoms was a yearning for the food, and for the way I could buy food there -- at the open market, or shuk.
"We should go to my market," my father, the sabra, suggested.
My mother, the New Yorker, agreed. If it was the noisy, pushy shuk I missed, we should definitely go to his market. She'd never set foot in the store whose unofficial code of conduct read "elbow or be elbowed." She preferred the clean, wide aisles of her Muzak-infused Pavilions.
That was my first clue that there are two types of people in this world -- those who love the shuk, and those who don't.
In a city with one of the largest Israeli populations in the country, there are many variations on the Israeli shuk experience in Los Angeles. Which of the two categories you fall into determines whether you're more of an Elat Market and Valley Produce kind of person, or whether Cambridge Farms and Ralph's are more your speed.
The authenticity of some markets lies in the products themselves, while in others, the entire Israeli shopping experience -- yells, smells, cell phones and all -- is recreated. Like the old Elvis/Beatles debate, you can like both, but you definitely prefer one.
At Elat Market, on the corner of Pico Boulevard and Wooster Street, smells of bread, fish, mint and parsley permeate the air. The floors are worn with footprints and shopping cart tracks. You hear many languages, but English doesn't seem to be one of them.
"They've got great produce and prices, and it's an adventure," said Beth Rosenblum, a frequent shopper at Elat. "You've got to watch out for the old ladies throwing their elbows out to block you."
This is especially true on Friday mornings. The pre-Shabbat rush can be particularly intimidating, even for a journalist just trying to get a quote. Between the crazy bustle, and the lack of native English speakers, my attempt proved fruitless. I would have to return early on a Sunday morning to talk to Rosenblum and Elham Rad, another weekly customer at Elat.
"For Passover, I brought one of my American friends here," Rad said with a laugh. "She was here 15 minutes. She grabbed some stuff and left. She couldn't stand the crowd."
Then again, she said, "It's always crowded, but you can find everything -- kosher stuff, vegetables -- everything for a low price."
But Shawn Soleymani, a Persian Jew, said the peace of mind is worth the higher price. A regular at Alef Market since it opened in December 2001, he said, "The aisles are open, are wide. It's not too crowded, not too pushy. It's cleaner, put together nicer. It's about 5 to 10 cents more per item, but it's convenient."
Even on a Friday, Alef Market's pace is slower, with far fewer customers, but the atmosphere also seems brighter. With its high vaulted ceiling, smell of fresh bread and Middle Eastern music playing over the speakers, it may not be your immaculate neighborhood chain supermarket, but it's definitely more genteel than the shuk experience.
In the Valley, the shuk experience is just as easy to find. Driving east on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, you'll pass a Persian restaurant and a storefront synagogue before hitting Mr. Kosher, a 12-year-old market on the southwest corner of Ventura Boulevard and Zelzah Avenue. Mr. Kosher's owner Tzvi Guttman recently got some competition in the form of Super Sal, an Israeli supermarket (no relation to the chain in Israel) that opened its doors last April, just four blocks east on Ventura Boulevard.
Super Sal's bigger, brighter space doesn't seem to concern Guttman, who said he hasn't seen much of a change in sales.
"It depends on what," he said. "Some groceries, yeah, but the meat not."
Dorit Pomerantz is a regular at both Super Sal and Mr. Kosher.
"There are more products here [Super Sal], and a bigger selection," she said, but she buys her wine at Mr. Kosher. "I buy Israeli wine and I try to bring it as gifts for people. The Israeli wine is very good."
In the span of our five-minute conversation on a slow Monday morning at Super Sal (it's usually quite crowded), Pomerantz is interrupted by two women she knows. She chats briefly with the first woman, discussing kids and a particular Jewish day school. The second woman taps her on the shoulder, and this time the exchange takes place in Hebrew.
"Normally when I come, I see people I know," Pomerantz said. "It's a nice feeling of community."
Those seeking calmer Valley venues will find they come in all sizes. Small, dimly lit grocers like Valley Glatt market survive alongside larger, brighter markets like Cambridge Farms -- in the case of these two particular markets, quite literally, as they're located across the street from one another on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood.
Roz Bayever is Orthodox and shops regularly at Valley Glatt for meat. She said Cambridge Farms is also popular within the community because "the produce is low-priced." Both stores also carry a variety of packaged food brands from Israel.
For those who prefer the comforts of a mainstream chain supermarket over the wider array of ethnic food items, Ralphs markets have also begun offering fresh, RCC-supervised glatt kosher meat in some of their L.A.-area stores. They first opened in Encino in early 2002 and, since then, they have opened one in West Los Angeles as well.
"We first tried it in La Jolla, and it's been quite successful, and in fact, draws customers from all over San Diego County," said Terry O'Neil, director of communications and public relations for Ralphs and Food 4 Less markets. "Its success led us to try it in Los Angeles, and it has been equally successful, if not moreso."
O'Neil also said two more Ralphs stores will open kosher butcher departments this year -- one in the city, at the Beverly Connection, and one in Canoga Park.
And, of course, there's the aforementioned Valley Produce market, for those who choose to embrace the manic atmosphere reminiscent of the old country, be it Israel, Iran or India.
"If you go downstairs on a busy day, you'll hear about 12 languages," Ephram Nehme, owner of the 10-year-old Valley Produce, said from his upstairs office inside the market.
Looking down on the market from his window, he pointed out some of the produce that fills the huge space.
"See those green almonds?" he asked. "Those are fresh almonds. A regular market wouldn't carry them."
He carries specialty items for the wide variety of his clientele, which comes from places like Eastern Russia, Latin America, Europe, Afghanistan, Israel and Iran.
When he first opened the market in June 1992, Nehme didn't know who his clients would be. Now, he says, his clientele is about 60 percent Jewish.
"That encompasses Iranian Jews, Arab Jews, Israelis and Americans," he said.
Nehme also said he is now considering making the butcher kosher, as some of his customers have requested.
One complaint Nehme doesn't seem to get is about the prices. He said he gets up at 2 a.m. to do his own buying for the market every day, his secret to maintaining low prices.
And at least for my dad, that's what makes Valley Produce his personal favorite.
"They have the most produce and the prices are the best," he recently told me. As for all the pushing, I think the aggressive Israeli in him secretly likes it.
Plus, he bragged, his build gives him a certain added advantage.
"The old ladies will push you and whatever," he said, "but because of my height, I get the best produce. I can reach the top section that the little old ladies can't."