College is about learning how to fit in, or—if you’re talented enough—finding out you don’t have to. As someone who fails to make the latter group, I often find myself ordering black bean cheeseburgers and pattyless patty melts to keep up with friends who eat traif with aplomb. When I’m at school in St. Louis, a city with a single kosher deli, that’s basically the best I can do. I get by on hearty, albeit vegetarian meals.
And that’s what makes coming home to Pico-Rob really great. Making my rounds through the cornucopia of kosher establishments in the hood reminds me of the community’s startling convenience, and (more importantly) of the taste of meat.
My first stop upon arrival in the hood is always Jeff’s Gourmet. Having tried most of the menu over the 13 years since Jeff Rohatiner opened a miniscule, mostly-takeout sausage place next door to Livonia Glatt, I go for their specials when I’m in town. These range from assorted deli wraps to several variations of their hamburger.
This week I went with an old buddy to experience the much-hyped Tunisian Burger. It becomes apparent quickly that this special is quite a monstrosity. Sandwiched by a pretzel bun (not the show-stealer here), the Tunisian features Jeff’s classic burger cushioned by lettuce, tomato, and chopped onion and crowned with succulent beef bacon and a fried egg. What makes it Tunisian is a fearless Harissa sauce that set my mouth properly on fire.
What began as a challenge to my mandibular fortitude and probably my arteries ended the same way many of my meals at Jeff’s do: with me loosening my belt buckle and wondering where all the food went. Maybe somewhere underneath all those crumpled napkins.
OK, let’s go to Tunisia.
My friend suggests that perhaps the fried egg was superfluous. But wasn’t that the point? This burger is unabashedly one of the last beacons of conspicuous consumption in the post-Madoff Jewish world. It’s the McMansion of meat. As someone who orders imitation for ten months a year as pals order steak Phillies, I am proud as ever to be a carnivore, and I will never be afraid to flaunt it. Jeff’s Gourmet realizes that many Jews feel the same way and fills that void at a doable price (Tunisian: $10, and you won’t go home hungry).
How has Jeff’s established hegemony over the kosher burger/hot dog category in L.A.? A diverse menu of hearty, delicious meals; short turnaround time on orders; an above-average parking lot(!); an impressively efficient use of space (which is where many other local kosher restaurants fall short); and an effective social media presence—offering deals through FourSquare and advertising specials on its Facebook page (which has over 3600 Likes—uhh, double chai!! This is really important people!!).
It’s more than that, though. The bustling burger joint serves people from all over Los Angeles, but it has fostered a unique loyalty among Jewish young adults. 8930 West Pico Boulevard has attained a level of popularity between street cred and cult status with this segment, many of whom eat vegetarian at non-kosher restaurants, and plenty who do not eat only kosher meat. It’s this crowd that wanders the left side of modern orthodoxy—kids coming from conservative or progressive shomer Shabbos families and attending Jewish high school—which vaults Jeff’s past its competition and creates the illusion that other fast-food style kosher restaurants might be successful in the same place.
These patrons come to nourish their pride in cultural Judaism. This is where I brought my college roommate to prove that observing kashrut meant anything but being vegetarian. Jeff’s serves a different kind of soul food to someone who doesn’t keep perfect kosher, but wears a silver magen david necklace, or to someone who believes in God but never wears a kipa. It’s the one place I don’t forget to wash my hands and make hamotzi, and there’s something to be said for that (even if I invariably forget to bensch).
At the risk of overreaching, Jeff’s Gourmet is a relevant prototype for modern orthodoxy because unlike shul, or college, there’s no pressure to fit in. On the contrary, there is no fitting in here. The black hat sits by the iPhone hawk. As such, this restaurant’s success at ‘cool’ undeniably lends some swag to the movement.
Shout out to burgers made of black beans and grilled cheeses on hamburger buns.
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