Katsuji Tanabe is a Chopped champion. He has competed in both the USA and Mexico editions of Top Chef, and is perhaps the only chef in Los Angeles who cooks and grinds his own nixtamal for his handmade corn tortillas in-house at his restaurant, Mexikosher.
If for some extremely strange reason you wanted to write a small paperback based on all of the accolades that Tanabe has received over his six years in business in LA's "Kosher Corridor" down Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills, you probably could. The international Jewish community adores him, too, and every other weekend he is flying out to different parts of the world, sharing his kosher Mexican food gospel.
Yet, he has never had one formal restaurant review from a restaurant critic.
"I don't even care anymore. The restaurant is busy. Isn't that the best kind of review there is?" Katsuji tells me this as he gently stirs the yellow and blue maize that he is boiling in alkaline lime water. He makes the nixtamal for his customers every other day, despite the pain in the ass that the process may be. "I don't even make that much money off these tortillas, but I have too much Mexican pride to use store-bought ones anymore. Plus, this is the only way that I can control quality." After he tells me this, Tanabe puts his head down and refocuses his energy into making sure that the maize is at the proper doneness before dumping it into his oversized stone grinder that he lugged from Mexico. He uses it to grind the masa for his tortillas and other masa-based creations.
A rabbi is present throughout every second of this nixtamal process. Tanabe has a morning rabbi and an evening rabbi, and they play a general manager role in Tanabe's small restaurant—and they also clean the cilantro, leaf by leaf.
He will be using this batch of masa to make tamales seasoned with shmaltz, not lard.
What Tanabe is alluding to with his indifference towards restaurant critics is the gross double standard that exists in Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles—a standard that rewards food writers for finding the most obscure, regional Mexican hole-in-the-wall in the fringes of the city. But at the same time, it's one that often makes the local food media turn a blind eye to a finer establishment such as Mexikosher, with its windowpane-lined facade and handmade oak tables and chairs overlooking the towers of Century City.
This double standard is such a prevalent subject in LA that it even made its way to a full 22-minute segment on KPCC's AirTalk with Larry Mantle. In that segment, Jonathan Gold participated in a good-hearted debate with Ricardo Cervantes of La Monarca Bakery, going back and forth on the subject. Of course, when the time came to open up the phone lines for listener comments during the conversation, Tanabe called in to offer his bold two cents.
Tanabe is by no means known for being humble. His troll-ish reputation is widely known among other notable chefs doing Mexican cooking in Los Angeles. (A joke that he makes confirms this fact: "I'm probably the only Mexican who has Jewish people working for me, since it usually the other way around.") Nonetheless, his passion for Mexican and kosher cuisine is admirable, to say the least. He has somehow been able to recreate the nonpareil richness of pork carnitas—perhaps the most famous and delicious Mexican dish of all time—by braising brisket in duck fat for a minimum of a dozen hours. His birria involves a mixture of lamb and beef braised for 16 hours. There is a daily special that changes every day, too.
On the Tuesday that I visit his restaurant, the daily special is molotes topped with pan-fried, spiced and pickled butternut squash, and chichilo mole, one of the lesser-known, chocolate-less moles from the Oaxaca's famous seven mole variations. The freshly formed paddles of crispy masa are tender, buttery, and prove to be the optimal vehicle to carry a ladle full of the musky, sweet, earthy mole. "It is hard to sell a vegetarian item to my customers but people can't get enough of these vegetarian molotes. Everyone calls them 'little pillows.'" Tanabe tells me as I eat one of the fluffy masa patties in a matter of seconds. Indeed, they are.
However, as I'm enjoying each bite of this dish that is fit to be on Mexican cocina de autor ("fine dining"), I can't help but get distracted by the chimichangas, chicken wings, and burritos that Tanabe advertises on his menu. Fearlessly, I confront him and ask him about the juxtaposition of his menu. "I always joke that I'll be the only Top Chef contestant that you'll see on TV where you will be able to eat a full meal from for less than $15, and on a disposable plate." I then take a huge bite of a birria burrito that he has shamelessly wrapped up for me in his Chipotle-like assembly line. It is not bad, and definitely one of the better burritos I've had in town, especially with the pickled onions.
"I don't mind. Besides, there is an art to all dishes, including a burrito."
He swears that he will never be OK calling himself a celebrity chef. "I will never dare to call myself—or let anybody else call me—a celebrity chef because doing TV is just for fun. Yes, sometimes I make a fool out of myself, too." He continues to share that he did not have enough money to open up a bigger, more serious Mexican restaurant when he first opened Mexikosher six years ago. That isn't the case anymore, as he is preparing to open a second restaurant in a couple of months, which he is calling Barandas (named after his two daughters) in the same area.
There, he will finally be doing more composed California-style kosher dishes with a broader Latin American influence. "I try not to take myself too seriously," he casually says. "My whole point is just to serve the kosher community." Time will tell if he will finally get the much-deserved attention from the local critics, though.