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LA Gets Kosher Mexican Restaurant With Opening of Lenny’s Casita

For chef and entrepreneur Lenny Nourafchan, the path to the American dream begins with Israeli food and ends with Mexican cuisine.
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July 28, 2021
From left, Lenny Nourafchan, owner, with friends Rachel and Asher Ehrman, and Ari Stock.

For chef and entrepreneur Lenny Nourafchan, the path to the American dream begins with Israeli food and ends with Mexican cuisine.

Two years after beginning his quest for a property in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, on July 20 Nourafchan (formerly of Charcoal Grill & Bar) opened Lenny’s Casita, a meat-vegan kosher Mexican restaurant—the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.

Tall and outgoing, the 32-year-old Nourafchan called the opening a virtually inevitable culmination of his one-step-at-a-time dream.

When Charcoal, his kosher Israeli restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, opened in the summer of 2018, Nourafchan was named head chef, and everything was fine for a year and a half, until the pandemic struck. “They laid off all of my staff,” said Nourafchan.

Eventually that setback would forge a new path to his lifelong goal.

“I had had this concept, since I was born,” he said, “of having a Mexican kosher restaurant.

“So I said to myself, ‘Every kitchen is full of Mexicans. Instead of letting them do what they do best, restaurants train them to do Japanese food, Italian food, Israeli food.’

“It’s like, everybody should be doing what they do best. The idea clicked because they were making their own staff meals. And the staff meals they were making for themselves were better than the food I was serving in the restaurant. The next step was obvious.” Nourafchan knew that he should open his own place—soon, he hoped, after scouting a Pico property, just west of Robertson and occupied at the time by Pizza Mucca.

As these ideas were roaming through Nourafchan’s mind in April 2020, he got a call from his meat supplier, Western Kosher, owned by Dovid Kagan, with whom he has a “good relationship. I told him I had a great concept, but I didn’t know when or where to start.”

Kagan told Nourafchan, “I have a big kitchen, and my staff leaves every day at 3:30, 4 o’clock. Why don’t you try to do something here in the meantime until you get something going?”

The budding restaurateur embraced the offer. “I opened on delivery ops, like DoorDash and UberEats,” he said. “So I had a restaurant with no actual location. Just to-go. Eventually I hired a staff of 10, and it worked out beautifully.”

“Now here I am. In my own hometown. It’s a miracle. I can’t believe it. The American dream.”

Things went well, but they got even better when David Zadmer, the owner of Pizza Mucca called last April, the day after Pesach, and said he had lost his kosher certification and wanted to know if Nourafchan was still interested in the property. Nourafchan’s “yes” was immediate.

Nourafchan’s growing-up story is as lively as his professional life.

“I am an L.A. boy,” he says. “My mom is from Italy and my dad is Persian. Multi-cultural upbringing. Lots of different food. Close family. We would go for summers in Italy. I moved to Israel when I was 15. In Israel, I fell in love and kept coming back and forth between here and Israel.  At 17 years old, I was a high school dropout. I was terrible in school. I was all over, Shalhevet and Beverly High among others.

“By my third year, I already had been in five high schools. I called my mom and said ‘This school thing is not for me. Let me go to culinary school, and I’ll do something I like.’

“I always was into food. My Italian grandmother (my mom’s mom) taught me how to cook. My mom, a lawyer, said ‘No way. You’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer. What is this cooking? It’s a hobby, a hobby.’

“So I listened to her. Two hundred thousand dollars of education later, I ended up coming back to the same thing. I was trying everything, selling real estate, doing sales, a bunch of things. Nothing clicked. I never was successful at the white collar thing until I decided it was time to do what I love.”

Five years ago, at age 27, Nourafchan started cooking professionally. He made a website and began cooking out of his own kitchen.

“I cooked all the time growing up,” said Nourafchan, the youngest of three brothers. “They liked to eat, but they weren’t foodies like me.”

Soon after trying it alone, Nourafchan concluded he needed real culinary experience, which he had never had.

“I said if I am going to learn, there is only one place, New York, which has the best kosher restaurants in the world. So my wife and I moved to New York. I worked for some amazing restaurants. I was a line cook, making $13, $15 an hour, just to get experience.

“I gained the experience and then had the opportunity to open Charcoal.

“They wanted a taste of Jerusalem, but I was very Mexican inclined,” he said. I wanted to put tacos on the menu. They were like ‘no way. We are an Israeli restaurant.’ So I took things into my own hands. I told the waiters, ‘put a special out tonight: Lamb shwarma tacos.’ It flew. Sold out.

“So I went to the partners and said ‘Hey, guys look at this. They said, ‘Okay, we like money. If it’s selling, it’s selling.’ The rest is history.”

What quality does Nourafchan have that makes him a successful restaurateur?

“I have no idea,” he laughed. “It’s insane.

“Now here I am. In my own hometown. It’s a miracle. I can’t believe it. The American dream.”

Nourafchan laughs and smiles a lot. In a word, his successful formula is involvement.

“I am here every day from open to close,” he said. “I answer all the phone calls. I take care of the customers. I greet every customer. I know their names. They know mine. We have a relationship. It’s like a family. That’s why this is a casita, a little house. They are coming over for dinner. It’s a whole experience.

“I love people and I love food. This was a match made in heaven.”

Nourafchan says the good news is, “I am close to home. I can run over and see the kids [Adele and Eliana] before they go to sleep.”

Lenny’s Casita, 8823 W. Pico Blvd. (310) 804-3400. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

 

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