One thing that's apparent as you walk through the shiny storefront of Mexikosher restaurant on Pico Boulevard is that they specialize in kosher Mexican food. The awning above the entrance reads, "Finally Real Mexican Kosher. Real Good, Yes Really," while a series of certifications by the door tell you that the eatery is legitimately kosher.
It may seem silly to overstate the obvious, but in a community known for its strict adherence to kosher rules, good Mexican food had been hard to come by. When Mexikosher opened in 2011, it was a revelation for those who never could've imagined that kosher food would be all about breaking rules.
"There were only things like quesadillas, nachos, Mexican pizza, things like that," says Mexikosher owner and chef Katsuji Tanabe, describing the sad state of kosher Mexican food prior to the launch of his restaurant. "And I was like, ok that's not so good."
Born to a Japanese father and a Mexican mother, Tanabe grew up in a strict traditional household in Mexico City. Tanabe remembers eating Japanese food at home, while the cross-culturalism of his upbringing helped him develop a unique cosmopolitan palate. But matzo ball soup and gefilte fish were furthest from his mind as he came to Los Angeles as a teenager and soon began attending culinary school.
After a brief stint studying fine dining in Japan, he came back to America to work at a series of well-established -- but perhaps unremarkable -- restaurants like Mastro's Steakhouse and Houston's. "You know, nice places," says Tanabe. When he ended up at Shiloh's Kosher Steakhouse, it turned out to be the best training ground for the young chef to expand his creative chops.
"I'm not Jewish, I don't really get involved with the religious aspect," says Tanabe. "[But] I like the challenge of kosher." As executive chef, he began pushing the boundaries of what kosher food could be. From kosher "pork chops" made of veal to kosher "scallop" made of sea bass, the challenges set by kosher rules offered Tanabe the opportunity to concoct creative dishes far beyond the realm of traditional techniques taught at culinary schools.
After six years of working as a kosher chef at Shiloh's, an opportunity arose for Tanabe to start his own restaurant across the street. Skepticism from his boss ("Nobody in their right mind would do Mexican food without dairy!") didn't deter him from taking a chance -- thus Mexikosher was born.
"At first many of [the customers] were skeptical," remembers Tanabe. For the strict Jewish community of the "Kosher Corridor," the sight of a Catholic Japanese-Mexican chef serving non-traditional kosher dishes was a bit difficult to take in. Despite repeated requests from customers, he refused to serve avocado egg rolls, a kosher staple, insisting that "if it tastes kosher, or if it resembles anything close to kosher, I'm doing something wrong."
Over time, however, word spread around, and Tanabe and his restaurant opened up the community to the possibilities of kosher food like they had never tasted before.
"I couldn't be more happy to be a part of this community," Tanabe says. "They've welcomed me to their community, they're great people when it comes to food." Now when a customer has a request for a specific cuisine that they've never tasted before, such as Thai or Vietnamese food, Tanabe would create a kosher version of it. "I love it when we can change their minds," he says.
Mexikosher soon became a lab for Tanabe's experimental kosher cuisine. As a non-Jewish chef, he would cook non-kosher food at home, while thinking of ways to make a kosher counterpart. One of the most popular dishes at Mexikosher is the carnitas, which is traditionally made with pork; for his kosher version, he uses beef brisket, cooked in duck fat. His kosher version of fried calamari is made with shiitake mushrooms.
The wall of specials he has served at the restaurant displays the depth of his culinary skills, fusing his unique cultural background to create dishes that simply taste good, while still adhering to the strict kosher standards. "Many of the [Jewish] customers, they've been deprived of certain foods all of their lives," Tanabe says. Examples of daily specials include Japanese-style katsu curry, made with beef cutlets instead of the more traditional pork, and the "Paula Dean Donut Burger" made with fried egg strips, beef bacon, and soy cheese.
If the cultural and culinary fusion offered by Mexikosher can be summed up by one object, you can see it right next to the entry door -- a piñata shaped like a dreidel.