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.
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.
Just chill out, order anything and eat up, I say. I've got no idea what goshgezde are, but they turn out to be lovely piroghi pastries stuffed with Asian-spiced lamb, and it costs me just a buck for the discovery. Salad Yaffa is more of an investment at $4, but it pays off with an intriguing crunchy-creamy coleslaw of shredded radishes and tiny shards of chicken and radishes in thin, soupy mayonnaise.
These folks can't be making any money charging $8.99 for an enormous lunch special of two shish kebabs (chicken breast or ground beef on sword-size metal skewers draped with white onion), served with a big bowl of soup, French fries and salad. For that soup, shurpa is a filling option, a central Asian recipe thick with root vegetables, lamb and a vinegary-toned broth. Or there's lagman, a hefty blend of thick noodles, bits of beef, green beans, celery, yellow and red bell peppers, green beans and carrots in a pleasantly tangy broth. The group that traveled that hour to get here is taken with the pelmeni soup, and it does my heart good to see them so happy. Pelmeni are Russian poached pasties filled with meat, and here, the little guys bob in generous quantities in their herb broth.
Bureka is a popular Israeli street food, sort of like a knish, hot and stuffed with mashed potato or ground beef. It's easy to eat too many of the addictive snacks, paired with their close cousins of blintzes (crepes folded around meat or potato) or mantu (an Afghan staple of steamed meat dumplings). A side order of tahini (thick sesame paste) is a must, once we learn to ask for it.
It also helps to ask if any specials are available. In my experience, no one will offer to share that the kitchen has some first-rate grilled salmon or trout that evening. And it helps to check orders carefully. One evening, I ask for that curious noni toki and it never shows up (turns out it's a crispy bread, as compared to the pillowy dill-scattered national bread). I ask my happy server if she's forgotten, and she says no, pointing to her handwritten check to prove she'd even remembered to charge me for it. But, she explains, they don't have it that evening. Thank you for coming, she says, and tells me that she thinks my dress is very pretty.
On the way out, I stroll past the chef hunkered over his miniature grill. He flips over a skewer, grins at me, and waves goodbye. It's a little odd, this Yaffa. It's got its own dedicated, offbeat ritual for preparing wonderful food. But ultimately, it's completely kosher with me.