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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Mi Casa Es Su Casa: The Mexican Magic of Lenny’s Casita

Every good food story starts with a grandmother: one of Leonardo Nourafchan’s earliest memories is standing on a chair, stirring a huge pot of polenta in the kitchen of his Italian grandmother.

Nowadays, you’ll find Chef Lenny in his own industrial kitchen, overseeing a dozen busy cooks chopping and grilling for Lenny’s Casita and Lenny’s Bazaar, the latest stars of the Los Angeles kosher culinary scene. Both menus feature charcoal-grilled meats, the freshest produce and piquant sauces to serve up deliciously bright and authentic food.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Nourafchan was enamored of all things Mexican—the food, the people, the music and the colloquial dialect. He especially loved the spices and flavors of Mexican street food. “It’s so natural and unpretentious—grilled meat and tortillas, flavorful salsas packing heat, chopped cilantro and onions and fresh lime.”

He always found it ironic that the finest restaurants in New York and Los Angeles featured kitchens staffed by “cooks that were overwhelmingly Mexican, yet Mexican cuisine was underrepresented. As if the owners would rather train their staff to make Japanese or Italian food, than let them do what they do best!”

Lenny’s Florentine-born mother is a lawyer and she urged him to go to college and earn a degree and have a profession. But he dropped out to pursue his passion for food and cooking. His restaurant pedigree includes stints at some of New York’s finest kosher eateries: Doma Land+Sea, a chic modern American steakhouse in Cedarhurst, Long Island; Alenbi, an upscale restaurant serving refined Israeli plates in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; and Mike’s Bistro, an elegant midtown Manhattan white tablecloth restaurant.

When he was hired to open the hip Los Angeles restaurant Charcoal Grill & Bar, the owners envisioned it as “a taste of Jerusalem.” As much as Chef Lenny wanted to interpret Israeli cuisine, he couldn’t resist adding some “Mexican flair” in the form Lamb Shawarma Tacos. Night after night, customers came back clamoring for those tacos and the tacos became the biggest hit on the menu.

Then in March, California went into lockdown and restaurants were ordered shut. In one day, he and the staff at the restaurant were out of work. Nourafchan knew that most of his coworkers were living paycheck to paycheck, with no access to benefits. While some managed to find work as day laborers, others were planning to return to Mexico, which meant that they might not be able to come back.

“I was at a loss,” says Chef Lenny, “but I wasn’t willing to let go of the dream.”

When his former meat supplier called to check in, Lenny told him that he “had a great concept, but that it would be insanity to invest in a storefront.” The supplier mentioned that his kitchen emptied every day at 3pm and that Lenny could rent it.

Within a week, Chef Lenny had his team back together and on May 11, the business was off and running, operating out of the Western Kosher site on Pico and La Brea.

Chef Lenny’s concept is a cloud kitchen that offers food for delivery and take out. Lenny’s Bazaar offers Shuk-style food, including tender moist, perfectly spiced lamb Arayes, fresh salad and cauliflower served with tahini and Silan.

The Casita offers a Mexicali street food menu, with tapas, tacos, burritos and flatbreads. The standouts include Carne Asado Tacos with Pico de Gallo and salsa verde, pollo tacos, a crispy focaccia with pastrami, chimichurri and heirloom cherry tomatoes and a vegan potato empanada.

The DIY (do it yourself) taco kits were inspired by the El Pollo Loco “Family Deals” and have proven incredibly popular. The Crunchwrap Supreme features your choice of protein, salsa and a crispy corn tostada. In a nod to the trick of making an inexpensive meal from rice and beans, there’s the Vegan friendly, gluten free Kobe Bowl (named for a friend) featuring Spanish Rice, black beans and guacamole priced at the lucky price of $7.70.

Chef Lenny and his equipe (team) are justifiably proud of their Comida Mexicana. And it seems like there’s a grateful audience for their food. On a recent night, there was a steady parade of UberEats and Doordash drivers waiting to deliver orders. And the phone was ringing off the hook with customers asking questions & placing orders.

Salud!

Lenny’s Arayis

Arayis have become one of the most popular street foods in Israel and around the world and for good reason; the meat is cooked inside of the pita so that all the fat and flavor from the meat bastes the pita from the inside and gives it a crunchy bite on the outside. Simple and unbelievably delicious.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs 90/10 (lean/fat) ground beef
  • Half pound lamb fat
  • 5 roma tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of Italian parsley
  • 6 shallots (peeled)
  • Baharat seasoning
  • Salt & pepper
  • 4 high quality pitas (Angel Bakery Israeli pita preferred)

Prep:

  1. Grate tomatoes into a chinois or mesh strainer and let stand for 10 minutes to take out the liquid. Finish by squeezing the moisture out of the tomatoes until all your left with is the pulp.
  2. Chop the lamb fat, shallots, and parsley as finely as humanly possible.
  3. Mix the ground beef well with the lamb fat, chopped parsley, shallots, grated tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of Baharat, and salt and pepper to taste until everything is incorporated well.
  4. Steam the pitas slightly until soft and slice in half.
  5. Portion the meat mixture into 5oz balls and stuff gently into each half pita. There is some technique here, make sure that the width on the Arayis is uniform throughout the pita so that the meat cooks evenly and that there are no empty air pockets in the pita.

Cook:

  1. Preheat the grill or plancha to medium high heat and place the half pita, meat side down onto the grill/plancha for 3 minutes or until the meat on the surface begins to cook.
  2. Take the Arayis off the grill/plancha and slice the half into 2 quarters.
  3. Place back on the grill/plancha with the raw side down for 3 minutes or until the surface begins to cook.
  4. Place in a preheated convection oven at 425 degrees for 5 minutes or until you reach the desired doneness. Be careful not to burn the pita.
  5. Serve with Tahina, schug and some diced tomatoes with lemon juice. YUM.

Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirls and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.

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