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I have to respect the dedication of a kosher kitchen. At first, the basic requirement seems simple: Milk must be kept separate from meat. But this rule is so onerous that cookware, utensils, bowls and dishes must be stored in separate drawers and cabinets. Strict observance requires two sinks, two disposals, two dishwashers and two ovens. Appliances need to be stainless steel, and blessed by a rabbi to prevent cross-contamination. Even shopping isn't easy. Creatures have to be slaughtered in a prescribed ritual and humane way, with the blood meticulously removed before the flesh is soaked and salted. Only cud-chewing mammals with split hooves are acceptable; pork and shellfish are completely forbidden. Eggs must come from kosher birds, and be free of blood spots.
Wow. I can't remember the last time I unloaded my dishwasher, cleaned my stove, and wiped down my sink, all in the same day. I certainly can't imagine doing that twice. And no person with any respect for religious order would ever condone my appliances -- who knew that ice cream shouldn't be softened in a toaster oven? (Don't ask.) Finicky shopping? Try a midnight run to Safeway for a prepackaged Cobb salad, some gravy-rich country stew dog food and a bottle of wine.
So it's nothing short of shocking when I trip across the cooking arrangement at Yaffa, a new kosher restaurant on the edge of Glendale. The place specializes in Russian and Middle Eastern, with a bit of Asian, Italian and German tossed around. There, on the menu, in big letters surrounded by stars of David, it reads "Supervised by the Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth," the local council that oversees compliance with Jewish dietary laws.
602-973-8110. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
As I pull into the parking lot, I see a gentleman perched over what looks like welded-together coat hangers fashioned into a homemade hibachi. The grill is only about a foot tall and a foot wide, sitting tiny and silly directly on the asphalt outside the open kitchen door. On it sizzles plump shish kebabs, juices dripping and spitting over a handful of charcoal. Next to the grill is a folding chair, on which rests a paperback novel our chef apparently had been reading while waiting for his chicken, ground beef, steak, lamb or lamb ribs to finish. This is shiny clean, ritual-riddled kosher?
Weirder, though: Instinctively, I've got no worries. As I walk past the curiosity, the gentleman waves so nicely and grins so happily at me, who cares what's going on? The meat sure smells good, too, crackling and heady with deep beasty perfume. While some things may look a little unorthodox, this food is legitimately blessed by higher powers than the health department. (And for the record, county health officials have found little to complain about, either. In several inspections, Yaffa's worst violation was keeping a back door propped open.) The fact that, ultimately, the food at this place may be grilled on what looks like a failed high school science project is okay with me, I guess, if it's okay with the Vaad.
I wonder how Valley folks who are committed kosher eaters manage meals outside their own kitchens. Our local certified restaurant selection is surprisingly limited, with just King Solomon's Pizza (a vegetarian joint serving pizza, pasta and Mexican at Seventh Street and Indian School), Segal's New Place (a deli in front of King Solomon's), and Cactus Kosher Foods (a south Phoenix market with sandwiches and takeout meals). We've got several bakeries, a pickle place (Klein in the West Valley), and fruit juices from Sun Orchard in Phoenix. A few tourist properties will prepare kosher functions with plenty of advance notice (Arizona Biltmore, Ritz-Carlton, Radisson Resort, Hilton Scottsdale, Scottsdale Princess, and Rawhide Western Town and Steakhouse).
Perhaps such scarcity is why so many of the tables around me on a recent visit are occupied by diners chatting about having driven long distances, sucking up precious gasoline, to get here. I overhear one group next to me heaving great sighs of relief -- they'd traveled for almost an hour for this dinner adventure, based on word of mouth from a neighbor who, they all agree, is a bit loose in brain matter. They're entirely pleased to find their favorites, though: the hearty borscht soup brimming with beets, cabbage and potato; and the cabbage rolls, two bundles of soft cabbage enrobing dilled rice and ground beef that are so satisfying I take more home to reheat later. The recipes, my owner/server explains, are "Grandma's."
It's engagingly inexpensive. Though we're supping on linen tablecloths anchored with vases of silk roses, all except three dishes come priced from just $1 to $5. It's the funky, personality-rich ethnic kind of place that food writers go nuts over, what with the opportunity to lavish praise on a family-run restaurant with unfamiliar dishes that are so cool to name-drop at cocktail parties.
But I must warn would-be diners that this is not the easiest way to get fed. There are some interesting language challenges of talking with natives of that former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan (owners Isaac and Ludmilla Gadaev). A group at another table keeps its waitress for what seems like 15 minutes, asking her to describe everything on the brief, absolutely vague menu ("noni toki," anyone? How about some Korean carrots, or a plate of "national bread"?). All but three dishes are à la carte, and besides those kebabs, a baked chicken, chicken schnitzel or spaghetti and meatballs, items are limited to appetizers. It appears the diners are getting frustrated with the waitress's tortured attempts to explain how everything works.