Nary a New Yorker would fail to recognize Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose likeness seems to be plastered behind every “Walk” sign in the five boroughs, along with the exclamation “Messiah is Here!” At Mama Kitchen in Bedford-Stuyvesant, tiny portraits of the Lubavitcher rebbe are everywhere, smiling knowingly over the diners — young Hasidic men, Israeli roofers and HVAC repairmen chowing down on tahini-slicked sandwiches and aromatic stews over couscous.
With the world headquarters of Chabad — the fabled red-brick mansion at 770 Eastern Parkway — less than a mile away, Mama Kitchen’s kosher menu has a clear base of customers. But the owners, the young Israeli couple Shai and Shira Asias, came to the community almost by accident.
On a plane one day, the two struck up a conversation with a pair of Lubavitchers, telling them about their plans to open a restaurant in Brooklyn. The men suggested an easy kosher certification from the Beth Din of Crown Heights (known as CHK) would open their food up to a ready audience.
“It was just like that, no really big reason,” Shira says. “We started doing the CHK, and then we started to be more involved in the community, because a lot of Chabad people came.”
Shira’s cooking reflects Israel’s melding of the Jewish Diasporic cuisines of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, but leans toward the latter — her family are Sephardim from Libya. She is serious about couscous, and Mama Kitchen makes it from scratch with fresh semolina flour, a rarity in New York. Ladled on top might be Sephardic meatballs with peas, or better yet, mafrum, a Libyan delicacy of peeled potatoes stuffed with gently spiced ground beef. Tunisian-style tuna sandwiches are enriched with hard-boiled eggs and preserved lemon.
Shira, who hails from Hadera — halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv — met Shai, who is from Ashkelon, by chance on a trip to visit America in 2010. He’d moved to Sayreville, New Jersey for work to support his family, and was getting into the real estate business. Soon after, she moved in with him, and the two then moved to Queens. Shai worked in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Shira started a business selling home-cooked food to the many Israeli real estate office workers in the area. Her schnitzel pitas and North African specialties developed a reputation on local WhatsApp groups, where she began sending the daily menu out to dozens of customers.
In 2017, Shira and Shai found their first opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, the original Mama Kitchen, on a lushly shaded block of Rochester Avenue. While Shira takes care of the culinary side of things, Shai is focused on business and particular about interior design, even traveling to Morocco to find traditional lamps for the ceiling. Now the couple have three restaurants, all worth visiting: the original Mama Kitchen in Bed-Stuy; its other location in the Orthodox enclave of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens; and Almah Cafe, the coffee shop around the corner from the Brooklyn location. Each has a different menu and style of service, with only a few staple items overlapping.
At the Queens location, a roomy suburban storefront that opened in 2021, a stone’s throw from Queens College, a silky, tahini-rich hummus — truly one of the best I’ve tried in the five boroughs — accompanies fresh, pillowy Moroccan frena bread and an array of salatim (cold dips and salads). But unexpectedly, the menu also makes room for one of New York’s tastiest kosher burgers, made from a mix of ground lamb and beef and topped with harissa aioli and caramelized onions — no cheese, of course.
At Almah Cafe, where espresso flows freely, bourekas covered in a hail of sesame seeds are split open and filled with classic sabich components, like fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce and tomato. The Jaffa breakfast is composed of two eggs accompanied by a tray with neat dollops of tuna salad, roasted pepper, tapenade, yogurt, sweet potatoes with tahini, and feta.
And at the flagship Rochester Avenue cafe in Bed-Stuy, schnitzel sandwiches, sabich and tuna baguettes are topped with custom assortments of cold salads and sliced veggies, like at the best Israeli falafel spots. On a recent visit, the mainly Hebrew-speaking weekday morning crowd slowly gave way to takeout orders from English-speaking Hasidim and neighborhood non-Jews. While you once had to be an in-the-know WhatsApp user to taste Shira’s cooking, now anyone can wander into Mama Kitchen.
“The Israeli people in the area knew me before,” Shira says. “So when we opened the place, we planned on these Israeli people, we didn’t really plan on non-Israeli customers. We didn’t know they would love it.” Shira’s cooking, which glides from Tunisia and Libya to the Levant and Eastern Europe, has something for everyone to love.