For over 10 years, Lowell Bernstein had an itch he couldn't scratch. He was obsessed with Mexican street tacos, but he keeps kosher. The kosher taco truck being something of an oxymoron, he had only his memories of the vibrant street-taco culture he'd experienced as a teacher in Mexico in his younger days. Until last year. Bernstein and two friends opened Takosher, LA's first kosher taco truck, tag line: "The Chosen Taco."
"A lot of people who keep kosher would probably never have an opportunity to participate in taco culture, or eat a taco for that matter," Bernstein says. "So I thought, 'What a great opportunity to allow or help people.'"
Takosher serves brisket tacos and latke tacos, among other varieties, to the après-synagogue crowd. And it serves a lot of them.
Bernstein is part of a small but growing movement. In fashion-forward Jewish enclaves in Los Angeles, New York, and DC, restaurant owners like Bernstein are giving kosher food a makeover. Gone are stodgy Eastern European dishes like kishkes (beef intestine stuffed with matzo) and chopped liver, and in their place is trendier fare like nuggets of veal sweetbreads with banana ketchup, sustainable corned beef, and sashimi.
In the age of Yelp, food blogging, and all-around more adventurous eating, younger kosher customers are no longer willing to accept food just because it's kosher. They want to eat at a great restaurant that just happens to be kosher. And business owners are listening.
BRINGING THE HOLLYWOOD VIBE
Kosher doesn't refer to a cuisine as much as a set of ancient and complex Jewish dietary laws. Meat and dairy cannot be prepared or eaten together, for instance, which means buttery sauces on meats or, say, cream in a chicken-based soup is out. And animals with cloven hooves that don't chew their cud, birds of prey, and shellfish are all forbidden, too. That means no pork, no oysters.
Until recently, people who kept kosher were mostly restricted to kosher delis or restaurants like New York's Ratner's, which closed in 2002.
"The kosher world is about a good generation behind the nonkosher world when it comes to restaurants," says Marc Epstein, who recently opened a Wall Street outpost of Milk Street Cafe, his Boston-based kosher restaurant. Kosher menus have traditionally been heavy with schmaltz (chicken fat), and slow to capitalize on wider food-world trends. By comparison, at Milk Street there's a yogurt and granola bar where you can build your own breakfast, and you can get a chicken banh mi for lunch.
At Laurent Masliah's new high-end Beverly Hills kosher restaurant, La Seine, former Top Chef contestant Alex Reznik makes most everything from scratch, down to the condiments. A pappardelle ragout with short ribs is served with house-made cashew cheese, to get around the no-meat-with-dairy rule.
When La Seine opened in January, with a rustic wood interior and specialty cocktails, there was built-in buzz from the kosher community. Although diner reviews of the food have been mixed, the restaurant can hold its own against nonkosher places when it comes to style. "The place has a very Hollywood look to it with the outdoor garden seating, tall blonde hostess and chic indoor seating," wrote one Yelp reviewer.
In New York, a pair of businessmen announced plans earlier this year to open what the New York Post promises will be a "hip, young" kosher restaurant in SoHo. The time when that would have been a punch line to a joke is officially over.
Photograph at top of page courtesy of Milk Street Cafe