My favorite vegan food in Los Angeles these days comes from a small, crowded restaurant on Melrose with a giant skewer of animal flesh rotating in the window.
In a city that seems to be enthralled with new vegan and conscious-food temples, like Café Gratitude and Feed Body & Soul, that statement may come as a shock. These are places filled with raw kale, beautiful actors (both serving and eating) and menus that describe food in such spiritual terms, you’d think you were in shul.
Meanwhile, West Hollywood’s Ta-eem Grill, which specializes in the kind of Israeli street food you’d eat standing up at the Shuk HaCarmel, has no such pretenses.
But much of the food is naturally vegan. And if it’s a dose of spirituality you want, Ta-eem has that, too — without the self-consciousness and self-promotion.
That comes in the form of the owner, chef and proprietor, Yoel Kraizberger.
It is the animating spirit of Kraizberger, as much as his superb food, that allows me to compare a tiny hummus and shwarma place on Melrose to two cutting-edge food-movement temples in Venice.
Putting a declaration on a menu or a Web site about soul and spirit is one thing, but at Ta-eem you come face to face with the owner who embodies all that. At the end of the day, food alone doesn’t feed us — people do. And it is their spirit that inspires, moves, touches our own.
First, Kraizberger really can cook. The shwarma is crisp-edged, dripping with fat and onion. It’s the best shwarma I’ve had in Los Angeles, no question. The hummus is creamy, fresh and smooth, a foil for spicier dishes. The falafel is green with cilantro and parsley, and the matbucha, the Moroccan salad of cooked-down tomato and pepper — sweet and hot and irresistible.
But there’s also something about this man. Feeding people is clearly a service of devotion for him. You see it in the way he treats his customers, the way he talks to his staff, the stories he tells.
Kraizberger stands just inside the glass window, calling orders, shaving shwarma, frying falafel. He wears a large Bukharan-style kippah embroidered with the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He greets every soul who enters. When you leave and say, “See you later,” he will stop what he’s doing, look at you — a stranger — and say, “I miss you already.”
The second time I dropped by, I asked him to sit with me outside to talk. He lit a cigarette — we were a good 13 miles from Café Gratitude, so why not? Kraizberger is from Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. He’d worked in restaurants from the time he was 12 — “School wasn’t for me, so I worked” — and opened his own beachside cafe, Sea Palace, at 21.
He came to Los Angeles 23 years ago, thinking he could escape the food business. He started a successful car dealership, which he ran until a series of health and financial reversals left him sick and destitute.
At that point he found the spot for Ta-eem, in a place where many restaurants before had failed.
Kraizberger told me that the bad luck started here, too, when a passer-by gave him a black-and-white photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which Kraizberger gave away.
“Everything went very bad,” he told me. “Like you have a curse that you don’t believe. When I started this place, the problems started.”
Two years passed. “Two years of agony.” Then the same guy came back — and he gave Kraizberger another picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This time Kraizberger hung the portrait in his restaurant.
Ever since, he has been a success.
“As much as it’s true what I’m telling you, this story,” Kraizberger said, “it’s something the human nature cannot understand. That means he watched over me, and Rebbe Nachman. They saved my life.”
Talk about Café Gratitude.
Kraizberger finished his cigarette and his story, and I my Turkish coffee. I mentioned to him then that much of his food happened to be vegan, which is all the rage these days.
“Vegan!” he said. “Where do you think Tobey Maguire gets his matbucha? He can eat anywhere, but when he’s in town, either he comes here or I make a delivery to Sony. Spider-Man, I swear my friend, he’s addicted to matbucha.”