L.A.’s Jewish food scene keeps on trucking

In the years since the food-truck scene took off in Los Angeles, nearly every culinary niche has been represented. Jewish food and kosher specialties have been finding their way to eager, hungry crowds in new corners of the city via the Canter’s Truck, the Reuben Truck, The Kosher Palate and chef Michael Israel’s Montreal Open-Ended Eggrolls & Deli. 

The next wave of kosher and kosher-style mobile eateries has jumped into the fray, with cheeky names to keep pace with the predecessors. The El Ñosh truck from notable local chef Eric Greenspan, Holy Kosher BBQ and the Holy Grill all are making the Jewish food cart and truck scene a whole lot more interesting. It’s fitting that this trio of newcomers is on a roll just in time for Purim, a holiday that jettisons seriousness while emphasizing fun and some degree of open-mindedness.

El Ñosh Latin Delicatessen, the latest project from Greenspan, chef and co-owner of the under-renovation Foundry on Melrose and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese, combines the truck trend with other esteemed Southern California traditions: free-spirited experimentation and irreverence. (The logo graphic depicting a gentleman donning a sombrero and serape juxtaposed with a Chasidic man along with other cross-cultural imagery sets a definite tone.) 

El Ñosh got its start serving a series of pop-up meals in Miami, New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico, which Greenspan collaborated on with Puerto Rico-based chef Roberto Treviño, whom Greenspan met on season two of “The Next Iron Chef America.” (Greenspan also was included on our 2013 list of top Jewish chefs under the age of 40.) Mobi Munch oversees the logistics and operations of the truck, which officially launched in Los Angeles in late January. 

While El Ñosh’s novelty and lighthearted presentation might elicit chuckles, along with some suspiciously raised eyebrows, Greenspan and Treviño don’t trivialize the food. Mole-braised brisket combined with carrot tzimmes might sound unorthodox, but Greenspan wants to be sure the dish tastes delicious. “It’s amazing how well Latin food and Jewish food fuse together,” Greenspan explained. “It’s been seamless, because Latin food is usually over-seasoned, and Jewish food is under-seasoned.” 

The current menu includes three “noshes,” or appetizer-sized plates, culled from the previous El Ñosh pop-up meals: yuca latkes (featured below), dill pickle pastrami croquetas and kishka (from Western Kosher) mofongo nuggets. The truck’s signature taco features black bean falafel and guacamole tahini. A mix of portion sizes encourage diners to test their comfort zones and order multiple dishes, just as “how you can eat through a menu at a classic taco truck,” Greenspan said. 

The food is “kosher style in the sense that there’s no cheese mixed with meat,” Greenspan said. But, he admitted, “We do put sour cream on stuff. That’s the one unifying ingredient between Jewish and Mexican food.” Desserts include poppy seed buñuelos, the traditional Latin and Spanish fried dough confection, paired with “gelt melt” chocolate sauce. (No, the staff doesn’t actually toil peeling aluminum wrappers from round chocolate coins.) Greenspan’s personal favorite item is the guava cream cheese blintz.

Because Jewish and Latin cultures are two broad categories that contain their own internal myriad diversities — as well as centuries-old crossovers — the team has tapped a deep well of inspiration. Greenspan insists, “We want it not just Mexican; it’s LatinJewish fusion. There’s also Puerto Rican and Caribbean [influences]. We brought elements from a lot of Latin cuisines, and we wanted to bring Ashkenazi and Sephardic [styles] to the table, too.”

While Greenspan is betting on the eating public’s sense of adventure, Adiel Nahmias of the Holy Grill and Rudy Ellenbogen of Holy Kosher BBQ give people what they want and mostly already know — albeit with some multicultural twists. 

The Holy Grill is stationed in a vacant lot on 15th Street between Main and Los Angeles streets on the southwest edge of the Fashion District, in close proximity to the other glatt kosher restaurants that service a garment industry clientele. After managing Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe on Pico Boulevard for four years, Afula, Israel, native Nahmias started the business last August. Its street presence is now hard to miss. 

The cart, which sets up tented tables sheltered by screens printed with “Kosher Grill on Wheels” in huge letters, images of flames and pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, cooks up a Mediterranean-focused but eclectic menu of hearty lunch plates. The Holy Grill also delivers locally and will soon expand its operations to USC Hillel on weekday evenings. 

To appeal to a diverse customer base, Holy Grill’s sandwiches, such as the chicken shawarma, beef and lamb kabob, schnitzel and Milanese fajita, come wrapped in pita, tortilla, laffa or baguette. There’s also a list of burgers and hot dogs, as well as Moroccan-style merguez sausages. Nahmias opens at 10 a.m., and breakfast includes the Israeli breakfast special (two-egg omelet, Israeli salad, cabbage salad, hummus and pita), Turkish borekas plate and even shakshuka. Nahmias wants his business to remind “you of Israel, and take you back home.” At least to the extent the aromas coming from a food cart in downtown Los Angeles possibly can. 

Often parked a few miles southeast of the Holy Grill’s home base, the Holy Kosher BBQ cart offers a streamlined menu of grilled hot dogs (regular size or larger “Holy” dog), sausages and burgers sourced from Western Kosher. Lima, Peru-raised and University of Texas at Austin-educated owner Ellenbogen focuses on attracting a student clientele at USC and UCLA. “There’s added value in being on a campus,” Ellenbogen said, and the less-than-$10 price point certainly helps. (Holy Kosher BBQ and the Holy Grill both cater, too.) He does a brisk business selling kosher beef bacon add-ons, and for a couple of additional bucks, the burger and hot dog plate combos come with carrot salad or coleslaw, plus a beverage.

Ellenbogen founded Holy Kosher BBQ on a career-changing whim. Although trained as a civil engineer, he had been working in real estate during his four years in Los Angeles when he “decided to try something new.” Based on his estimation, the marketplace could accommodate more strictly kosher mobile food purveyors. Ellenbogen’s easygoing sociability and generous manner suits his new line of work. When he spotted a USC student dressed in military fatigues, he offered her a free meal and modestly said, “Please, I would love to feed one of the troops! That’s never happened before.” (She politely declined.)

Ellenbogen, a resident of Pico-Robertson who keeps kosher, reveals his Peruvian identity in one notable way at Holy Kosher: his supply of Inca Kola, the signature soft drink of his native country. “I saw it, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to take this,’ ” he said about how the case found its way from the restaurant supply store to his food cart. 

Hopefully, his customers embrace the spontaneous “Why not?” mindset that’s a defining characteristic of food truck culture. As Green-
span can attest, this factor also helps encourage creativity on both the supply and demand sides. “Food trucks have become like a state fair experience,” Greenspan observed. “Part of the fun is trying new things. Whether you like it or not, at least you tried it.” 

El Nosh Yuca latkes with mango jam and lime crema

Makes about 20 latkes

For the latkes:

1 Yukon Gold potato, peeled

1 red onion, peeled

2 large yucca roots, peeled

2 eggs

½ cup flour

2 cups grapeseed oil

Using the grating attachment, grate the potatoes, onions, and yucca separately in a food processor. Using a colander, squeeze all the excess liquid out of the grated vegetables as you typically would when making a classic potato latke.

Combine with eggs and flour in a mixing bowl, incorporating completely.

Add the oil to a medium skillet and heat to 370 degrees. Place two ounces of the latke mixture to the oil and cook until brown on one side, approximately 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, flip the latke and continue to cook until browned on both sides.

Remove from oil, place on a paper towel covered tray and immediately season with salt. Continue with the remaining mix. Serve immediately.

For the mango jam:

2 mangos, peeled and diced

1 oz. champagne vinegar

2 oz. agave syrup 

In a medium saucepan, heat the mangos, vinegar and syrup until soft and all liquid is evaporated. Blend until smooth.

For the lime crema:

2 oz. sour cream

½ oz. lime juice

1 teaspoon fresh grated lime zest

Combine all ingredients and keep cool.

To serve:

Top each latke with a dollop of jam and crema. Serve immediately.