The thing about Los Angeles is that in this enormous metropolis each part of town is like its own city with its own culture, and often each area is known for its own dominant types of ethnic food. LA has a huge Jewish population, and there are many pockets of the city with great Jewish and Israeli food. But for years on the Eastside of LA, which includes neighborhoods like Silverlake, Echo Park and Los Feliz, there’s been a noticeable absence of Jewish food. No good bagels, matzah ball soup or pastrami. The tide has recently shifted, and seemingly all at once Jewish food is everywhere around here… and it’s some of the best in the city. Maybe it’s because there’s been an influx of New Yorkers moving to Silverlake and Echo Park, or maybe it’s because there is a very real Jewish food renaissance happening across the country, or maybe it’s just long overdue and our time has finally come. Whatever the reason, as a longtime Eastside resident, I’ll happily take it.
If you’re a Los Angeleno, or if you’re a New Yorker visiting Los Angeles, then at some point you’ve probably found yourself talking about LA’s lack of good bagels. Carb-phobic Los Angeles will likely never have the range and scope of what’s available on the East Coast, but a few folks are changing the West Coast’s bagel game, and at the top of that list is Jason Maury Kaplan of Maury’s Bagels. Jason is an East Coast native who moved to LA in 2004 and couldn’t believe the state of bagel affairs. Ten years after moving the problem still hadn’t been solved, and so he set out to fix it.
Jason’s bagels are so good they rival any good bagel from any geographic location. They have that perfect crisp impossibly shiny shell, revealing strong, but not too dense, dough with good chew. Each bagel, from plain to za’atar-topped, is full of flavor. I’m especially a fan of the jalapeno cheddar, which places thin disks of hot pepper on a generously cheese-encrusted bagel. Maury’s Bagels are so good you don’t even need cream cheese to enjoy them. But, why would you have a dry bagel (ever) if you could have arguably the best whitefish bagel on the West Coast? The perfectly seasoned tender whitefish tops a layer of good quality cream cheese, and then paper-thin cucumber slices finish the sandwich off. You can find Maury’s Bagels at its Saturday pop-up at Dinosaur Coffee, on Sunday at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and thankfully it’s opening up a brick-and-mortar space in Silverlake this coming year.
Address: 4334 Sunset Blvd
LA is known for housing some of its best restaurants in humble strip malls. At one such unassuming strip mall on Sunset Blvd, smack dab between L.A.’s Eastside hipster meccas of Silverlake and Echo Park, Freedman’s recently opened up shop. Entering this modern Jewish restaurant feels like walking onto the set of Mad Men. Actually, my first time at Freedman’s a commercial was being filmed inside the restaurant, which added to the surreal Hollywood feeling of the place. Freedman’s decor features a rich mahogany wood bar and matching built-ins, marble tabletops and tasteful floral wallpaper. The interior feels straight out of the 1950s, but the menu harks even further back to the food of our Ashkenazi grandparents. While the menu features kippered salmon, veal tongue, dishes topped with chicken skin and other old-school classics of Eastern European culinary Jewishness, it also enthusiastically leads familiar family dishes into the present with touches like nasturtium flower topping a lox bagel, a latke waffle and sweetbread schnitzel.
Freedman’s house-made pastrami sandwich is without reproach, but the standout of this restaurant is its matzah ball soup. The broth tastes rich, like it’s been made with many fresh chickens and simmered carefully for hours on the stove, in contrast to the often yellow-shaded powdered bouillon-made broth one encounters at other delis that shall remain nameless. The matzah balls are pleasingly small, light and tender with an agreeable amount of chew, and they are almost unnervingly perfectly round. The soup gets served for two in a dish that could easily have come from your bubbe’s house. On the topic of bagels, credit has to be given to Freedman’s for what it’s making in-house. Its bagel is Toronto-style. The owners come from Canada, and they reference Toronto’s legendary Gryfe’s bagels as their inspiration. They make a bagel that is a cross between New York and Montreal-style: not too big, not too dense, not too airy and just right. Freedman’s is brand new, and it’s still getting into the swing of things, and seemingly also adjusting to the vibe of the neighborhood. But this is definitely a spot I will happily return to, preferably after a long day when I can sit at its beautiful bar, have a martini, and transport myself to another time and place.
Address: 2619 Sunset Blvd
If you hate long lines, or sitting outside on stools precariously placed alongside a steep hill, and if you prefer menus to be printed on nice paper as opposed to scribbled on stained paper bags, this is not the place for you. If, however, you have been craving an authentic creamy hummus, one that gets topped with a rainbow of pickled vegetables and served with a good chunk of earthy seeded bread for dunking, then you will not be disappointed. MhZh is the Israeli-inspired spot that’s been missing on the Eastside of LA. Even though it’s missing vowels, this restaurant’s name is pronounced “mah zay.” Hebrew speakers will immediately recognize this as the phrase for “what’s that?” or “what is it?” Chef Conor Shemtov grew up in LA, but his father is Israeli, and he had lots of exposure to great Israeli food growing up.
MhZh fits right into the aesthetic of its neighborhood, but it equally feels like it could exist in the heart of Tel Aviv. The restaurant sits on a busy corner with lots of pedestrian traffic. The building is brick with large windows on each side, and most of the seating is located outdoors. The plates are all shareable, the vibe is exceedingly casual with a hint of unattainably cool, and the food is outstanding. There’s the must-have lamb ragout; spiced ground cooked lamb in a velvety sauce that is the definition of savory, and is instantly comforting. Then there’s the stunning grilled beets with their sweet earthiness, complemented by thick, tangy, creamy labneh, and topped with crunchy roasted hazelnut. Another favorite for me is MhZh’s unique lemony charred potato wedges, which are crisped, creamy and smoky. The prices are affordable for the style and quality of the food, and if you snag a table on the hillside right before sunset, your plates will get perfectly lit by the golden-hour glow. In that moment, you might feel a deep connection between Southern California and the land of Israel, and the fresh, flavorful, light, food of both places.
Address: 3536 Sunset Blvd
Honorable Eastside mentions:
Belle’s Bagels, a one-of-a-kind bagel shop in Highland Park selling its bagels out of a takeout window. Its bagels stand out in their quality, and are made as much as possible with organic and local ingredients
Dune, located in Atwater Village, elevates falafel with its unique style of this Israeli favorite. Dune’s falafel is made with house-made flatbread and pickles, a shoestring potato topping, and marinated cabbage and onion.
Kismet, a new take on Middle East food by two notable young Jewish chefs with a fresh, modern menu.