LAist Visits: The Corner Of Whitsett And Burbank, For Bengali Fish Head And Lentil Curry, Exceptionally Fluffy Pitas, And Pittsburgh-Style Pizzas
Diversity in Los Angeles expresses itself in a variety of ways. Our aim with this coverage is to focus on communities through the food they make and sell, spending time in that ubiquitous yet often overlooked L.A. institution — strip malls — to get to know our neighbors better.
It’s about two hours and forty-five minutes before sundown on a Friday, and the beginning of Shabbat, when Orthodox Jews stop working, shopping, and traveling for 24 hours.
I am Jewish but secular, so I don’t always think about navigating the logistics of the Sabbath — but I’m thinking about it right now as I try to enter the extraordinarily crowded Cambridge Farms supermarket parking lot at the corner of Burbank and Whitsett in Greater North Hollywood.
The store closes at 4:30 pm on Fridays, and there’s a pre-Shabbat rush, so I only have a few minutes to get inside to grab a bag of those exceptionally fluffy pitas and still delicious day-old half-off bourekas that I promised my wife.
People in line speak English, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi, and Yiddish. Everyone is in a hurry.
I notice six varieties of frozen potato knishes, rabbinically approved Oreos from Argentina, and a soy paper seaweed alternative for making a batch of crustacean-free sushi, next to a pile of yarmulkes.
The Cambridge Farm store began stocking kosher foods for the growing orthodox population who were drawn to the area by synagogues, kosher restaurants, and the appeal of an eruv.
(An eruvis an unbroken boundary that lets observant Jews carry things in public on Shabbat. There has been one in effect in this part of the Valley since 1983, bounded by the 101, 405, 170, and 118 freeways.)
North Hollywood-Valley Glen-Valley Village is probably one of the most diverse Jewish neighborhoods in the country, with distinct orthodox communities. Em Habanim Sephardic Congregation is the heart of Little Jewish Morocco. There are shuls that trace their lineage back to Lithuania (and some to New Jersey). On my parents' block, there are observant Israelis and Orthodox Jews from El Salvador.
I get the pitas and the bourekas — and get out.
I head next to a small, humble-looking store covered in window decals for produce, lotto ads, and EBT. Spice Plus is a Bangladeshi halal meat and fish market that has been a South Asian grocery store and eatery since the early 2000s.
Muhit Imtiaz introduces himself and shows me around. He arrived in Los Angeles earlier this year from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He had been helping his uncle, the previous owner, around the shop for a few months before it sold to the current owner, his other uncle.
He says they’re one of the few Bangladeshi places in the Valley. In addition to South Asian staples, they specialize in selling freshly butchered halal meat, frozen fish from the Bay of Bengal, homemade yogurts, pickles, and Gulab Jamun.
Their chef is also an expert in Indian cuisine, but she’s been back home in Bangladesh, so when she returns later this month their restaurant will offer chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, and chicken and vegetable samosas in addition to their signature dishes. Though they mainly cater to a Bangla and Indian clientele, Imtiaz says, "we like to share our culture and food with everyone."
We like to share our culture and food with everyone.
He offers to fix me a plate — white rice with curried beef, and a fish head and lentil curry, known as muri ghonto, a jewel of Bangla cuisine. I’m very satisfied with this unexpected meal.
Muhit is an MBA student and when he’s not studying, he comes to the market to help his uncle with the family business. He tells me how first arriving in L.A. totally reminded him of Grand Theft Auto.
He says back home in Bangladesh, he used to interview local food establishments himself as an intern on a local radio station show called "Foodies."
The first thing I notice when I walk into Gorilla Pies, a pizza joint a few doors down, was the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine storage tin hanging on the wall. I also used to have one and would use it to store cassette tapes in my 1998 Saturn Wagon that I used to cruise around the Valley.
There’s a story for everything on the wall, says Chef Ben Osher. This is a photograph of the Chinese restaurant his family ate at every weekend. That’s a picture of his mom as a kid with a pizza on her head.
There’s stuff all over the walls because Osher wanted the aesthetic of Gorilla Pies to look like his childhood home. Baseball pennants, tchotchkes, photographs, collages, drawings, dioramas, a pack of Garbage Pail Kids cards on top of a copy of The Noma Guide to Fermentation — an assemblage of family lore and childhood nostalgia.
After more than a decade in other people’s kitchens, Osher wanted a place of his own. Gorilla Pies is a personal expression — his culinary expertise mashed up with the comfort foods of his youth.
An ex-Nobu chef who has run Michelin-starred kitchens, he started slinging gonzo pizzas out of his apartment during the pandemic and built a following. He opened a brick-and-mortar store and got named one of L.A. Times food critic Bill Addison’s favorite new pizza joints.
After his years of cooking for executives, celebrities, and oligarchs in fine dining settings, there’s something refreshing in how Osher talks about making what he calls “utilitarian food.”
Circular dough becomes my guardrail
Osher has the chops to make nearly any cuisine — but he tells me that he likes working within a set of rules. He says "circular dough becomes my guardrail," and that within the constraints of a pizza, he can improvise.
That kind of tasty experimentation gives you Char Siu and pineapple (“The Big Kahuna”), Popcorn Buffalo Chicken ("The Great White Buffalo") or just reimagining a Reuben sandwich as a pizza (“The Rabbi”).
A lot of care goes into his pies. The dough proofs for 24 hours, the water is filtered through a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system to ensure consistent PH levels, and he exclusively uses California-grown organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes.
Osher is secular Jewish like me, and chose this strip mall because it reminded him of home — Squirrel Hill, a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where Hypebeasts and Chasids co-exist, reminiscent of L.A.’s own Fairfax Avenue.
Outside of Gorilla Pies is a sign that says “Osher Not Kosher” — a tongue-in-cheek reminder to his orthodox neighbors that they probably won’t want to eat at his place, but he is still a part of this community. Relations are generally copacetic — he does get annoyed when people jiggle his locked doors to see if he’s open — but he gets genuinely offended when religious people ask him “why do you have a mezuzah?” He doesn’t elaborate on why that’s so offensive, but I get it — he has a mezuzah because he is proud to be Jewish — and someone who might be more observant doesn't have the authority to question your Jewishness.
Being unabashedly proud of who you are, what you stand for, and where you come from is on full display across this plaza, on this Friday afternoon, on the northeast corner of Whitsett and Burbank Blvd.