Posted by Louis Keene
The truth is, I knew that Got Kosher?, a wildly popular Shabbos takeout venture operating basically out of B’nai David Judea’s garage, had made its foray into the restaurant business. I knew that Got Kosher? enabled SoCal college students to keep kosher on campus, and that many families swore by its pretzel challah.
But I didn’t see it translating. A Got Kosher? restaurant sounded like prepackaged turkey sandwiches released from their saran wrap and thrown on plates for ten bucks. So I never went until last week, when a friend took me there early one evening to discuss WashU for her son, a rising high school senior.
There was little about the Got Kosher? dining experience that did not surprise me. The menu, to begin with, dissolved my expectations. A host of starters and entrees ranging from chicken couscous to Côte á l’Os render it diverse and intriguing – I want to come back. And who knew the restaurant had a strong Tunisian influence?
Well, how would I have known?
I went with one of their house specialties (all of which come with soup and either salad or fries): Pulled Beef Brisket Kansas-Style. The beef soup was fantastically rich in flavor and I devoured it. And the barbeque brisket—sweet, tender, succulent meat on a fabulous stirato bun. (Yes! First review of a place that got the bread right!) Even the fries were crispy.
It filled me up yet I wanted more. Having driven through Kansas City (where the ratio of people to BBQ restaurants is literally 80:1) multiple times without ever actually tasting its famous offerings, this became an experience of freedom, too. Wait, I don’t have to skip bread for eight days to taste freedom? Never mind…
The company was wonderful, too, and in GK’s soft light cast on wooden panels we stayed nearly two hours. At one point our conversation turned to the name: Got Kosher?
It does not just bug me that the brand name disguises the style; on a bad day, it’s gimmicky. Primarily, it just does not work as the name of a fancy Tunisian restaurant. Moreover, the restaurant alienates potential customers by betraying its commitment to kashrut in its title.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think kashrut (or any notion of Jewish identity for that matter) should necessarily be concealed. It’s more that Kosher in the name is a signifier of limitation or imitation – see Kosher Subway, for example. “Kosher” connotes even less of a distinctive style than “vegan” unless you’re talking deli or bakery. You wouldn’t go and get kosher food like you would order Chinese or Mexican. And when you have kosher in the name, you are eliminating clientele.
Here’s why: there’s a divide in Jews my age between those whose entire cultural identity comes from Judaism or variations of it (i.e. Sephardic, Israeli, Persian, Camp Ramah, etc.) and those whose cultural makeup contains totally alien elements. As I would tell my dinner companion, only some of my friends at WashU are Jewish, and only some of those don’t eat cheeseburgers. Leaving the bubble (for another bubble, of course, but still) changed who I am, and the name incites this discomfort with considering myself a Jew only, even if I am totally Jewish. To be recklessly reductive and maybe confusing, I have a life outside of Judaism even if I never depart from my Jewish sense of self.
I’m not suggesting that Jews who have jobs in entertainment, or law, or anywhere else in the secular world haven’t achieved a sense of cultural assimilation. I’m saying that restaurants intending to serve those Jews don’t need to advertise themselves as just kosher to reach them. Which would you prefer for taking a non-Jewish coworker to dinner: “Got Kosher?”, or something like, say, “Taste of Tunisia”?
Jews already have a reputation for being exclusive, so with a name that distinguishes itself as a Jewish establishment, Got Kosher? wards off the stranger in our midst, the mysterious Beverlywood Non-Jew. I imagine a 5-10% non-religious Jewish customer base would be found money for a kosher Pico Boulevard restaurant.
So why do so many Pico places insist on forgoing that margin? Would some Jewish people be uncomfortable eating at a kosher place that attracts non-Jewish clientele?
Who and what are we leaving out in our pride in being Jewish?
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July 5, 2012 | 2:19 am
Posted by Louis Keene
I used to beg my mom to take us to Eilat Bakery on Friday afternoons, back when it was still nestled in the shadow of Pat’s on Glenville Drive. In those days it was a humble shop with minimal décor whose baked goods beckoned from a glass display case. My favorites were their truly delectable chocolate éclairs that oozed custard of impeccable viscosity. We would buy several, devour two and throw the rest in our fridge to microwave later.
That hole-in-the-wall iteration of Eilat was the classic Jewish bakery in my mind. Function over form; a category killer. I regret to say that my mom, a talented and willing dessert chef who usually didn’t need to buy challah or cookies, took me less often than I would have liked. Eventually we stopped going altogether, only sometimes gazing wistfully as we dipped out of the parking lot for Stan’s Produce.
The next thing I knew, Eilat Bakery had moved a few blocks eastward onto the corner of Pico and Canfield. The cavernous new location (at which they set up shop in late 2010) boasts high ceilings and a short patio; the glass cases are bigger than ever and display an ungodly assortment of pastries. And unlike the at-times cramped old store, the new one is not standing room only. In fact, the new Eilat bears a strong resemblance to Schwartz’s Bakery, another long-standing breakfast/bakery fusion located on Pico Blvd. about three quarters of a mile east.
The expansion of Eilat in the new location means it now features a restaurant kitchen that serves breakfast all day along with several dairy and fish salad, sandwich, and entrée selections. Still, it is arguably a kosher bakery’s most important duty to stay open as close as possible to candle-lighting, so it made sense that my first trip to the new Eilat Bakery would occur on a Friday afternoon after almost everything else had closed. (Indeed, a few harried customers shuffled in to grab their last-minute lechem mishneh as we awaited our food.) The order: Eggplant Parmesan on French baguette ($11.95).
However, the food was served fresh and yummy. The baguette was appropriately crispy if unspectacular; the eggplant was cooked perfectly, the melted cheese not too stringy, and the marinara piping hot and on point. The sandwich left me full, but not stuffed.
Though the bakery has perhaps set its sights on Schwartz’s target market with the venue change and restaurant menu, it has not quite committed to a reimagined identity. It’s unclear, for example, whether bakery and restaurant customers should stand in the same line. And despite attempts to practically and aesthetically justify use of its entire space, plenty of empty real estate remains—even in the glass cases.
I departed with the impression that Eilat Bakery had adopted this new business model against its better judgment. The old building had an understated, almost absentee style operating outside the reach of boisterous glatt marts and kosher takeout. It was clear what you were stepping into. Its new-and-improved version doesn’t really know what it’s trying to be, other than new and improved, since much of their efforts to rebrand seem only halfway finished.
I’m sure it continues to churn out quality sweets and famous challah, but what’s missing from Eilat 2.0 is the spirit of that cozy old place I once knew on Glenville. No one needs TVs – or even chandeliers for that matter – in a bakery. The disorganization and borderline cheeky prices are unfriendly, too. But most of all, I miss the traffic.
The palpable stress of Erev Shabbos was unique to Eilat Bakery before it moved. It could be stuffy and discombobulated in there, but rubbing elbows with other Yiddim trying to beat candle lighting made for some tremendous bustle! We only ever went to snatch a challah at the last minute, so that swarm became the Jewish bakery atmosphere I grew to cherish. Even in a rush, the éclairs augured the sweetness awaiting us when the sun ducked below the horizon.
They also left an indelible imprint on my memory, recalled when I buy one éclair to go on my way out. It’s delicious, yet it doesn’t taste the same even though I know it’s identical to the ones I used to love. But maybe the kids in line behind me will see this Eilat as Jewish bakery incarnate. If so, I hope it doesn’t require another relocation for them to appreciate it.
June 29, 2012 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Louis Keene
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.0 Comments — Leave your comment