The enchiladas at Mexico City’s Klein’s are topped with creamy queso fresco, smothered in a bone-warming blend of piquant sauces, and parceled neatly around peppery strips of kosher salami and a generous smear of cream cheese. It tastes like a beautiful accident—two traditions of cuisine married in their most elemental forms. I ate until I couldn’t move. Nothing in the world will make you realize how much you’ve underestimated the potential of cured meat more than a Mexican-Jewish meal. In another dimension, the Enchiladas Paloma from Klein’s are Brooklyn’s requisite hangover cure, the bacon-egg-and-cheese.
Klein’s opened in 1962. There is nothing intentionally experimental or superstitious about the menu. You’ll find this tiny, linoleum-lined cafe carefully tucked away next to a Converse outlet store on the western side of the city. The plastic-sealed wooden tables are topped with salt and pepper shakers, ketchup, and mustard, and are furnished with bulbous orange rolling chairs and sturdy booths. A small cadre of chefs work out of a modest kitchen that liberally juts into the dining room, serving up a handful of judío-mexicano fusions: tacos filled with diced kosher meats; bagels piled high with meat, eggs, and chunky green salsa.
The story goes that Edward Klein, a young soldier from San Antonio who served in World War II, returned to Mexico after active combat ended to be with his family. Fed up with the textile business, he initially opened his namesake restaurant, to mirror the greasy-spoon aesthetics of the American diner—hamburgers, hotcakes, and bottomless pots of hot coffee. His wife, Andrea, came from the neighboring state of Puebla, and introduced a suite of classic Mexican dishes to the menu. Chilaquiles were served alongside chocolate milkshakes, and the very particular flavor profile of Klein’s was born. The Klein’s experience entails watching a fuzzed-out soccer game on its old TV while dining on mole poblano and corned beef sandwiches until the lights are turned out at midnight.
Mexican Judaism is not terribly common, comprising a small ethnic group of about 40,000 to 50,000 people, most of whom live in Mexico City. I was not even familiar with the concept until college, when I was randomly assigned a roommate who hailed from Mexico City and represented the youngest branch of a well-rooted Semitic family tree. Like many of the Jews in Central and South America, his ancestors hailed from Spain, a country that famously purged the non-Catholic population from its borders during the Spanish Inquisition. The New World, they hoped, would offer greener pastures. (In 2015, Spain attempted to mend its fences with the community, offering citizenship to the descendents of those who were pushed out in the 15th century.)
“In the 1860s, there was an open call for Jews to come to Mexico, because it was believed that the Jews would help launch the political, economic reforms that the new country needed,” says Pati Jinich, a prominent Jewish-Mexican chef who stars on Pati’s Mexican Table. “So Jewish communities have arrived to Mexico at different times. You have the Ashkenazi, you have what we call Arab Jews, you have the Turks, you have folks that call themselves Sephardic. … [They all] have great relationships with Mexico as a country, but they’re not as assimilated as, say, the Argentinian community.”
Jinich tells me her Mexican identity supersedes her Jewish heritage, and maintains that most people in the country’s Semitic commonwealth feel the same way, but she does suspect that their shared history as refugees has made their confederation pretty tight-knit. “Everybody I know in the Mexican-Jewish community was so grateful to grow roots here, but mostly for the religious freedom,” says Jinich. “There was an opportunity to say, ‘We can rebuild the community, and we don’t have to sacrifice our religion in order to survive. We have to stick together.”
That closeness has fostered a truly unique Jewish palate. Some of Jinich’s favorite dishes include matzo ball soup with mushrooms and pickled jalapenos; gefilte fish patties covered with a Veracruz-style red chili sauce; and flourless chocolate pecan cake. All of these are Ashkenazi recipes that have absorbed the vibrant flavors indigenous to the Central American coast. As far as Jinich is concerned, that’s the best thing that could’ve happened to her ancestral cuisine.
“Ashkenazi food is very bland, boring, dull, and grey. It came to Mexico, and it was blessed with the bounty of ingredients,” she says. “Mexico is a hot country, different from a cold Eastern European country like Poland.”
If you tour Mexico City’s Semitic restaurants, it becomes abundantly clear just how diverse the country’s Jewish population really is. Klein’s is the main event, with its gleeful consolidation of culinary influences filtered through a brisk New York diner, but there are a handful of other delicious options, as detailed by blogger Evan Caplan on the website Jewish Food Experience. The ultra-hip Merkavá sits further south in Condesa, and whips up fragrant hummuses that are prepared from Israeli recipes. Wendy’s Kosher bakery offers kashrut-ordained pan dulce (and is, of course, closed on Saturdays).
But the one I’d recommend the most is Sammy’s Grill, a proud 100-percent kosher restaurant that distills everything weird and wonderful about ancestral food fusion into its cuisine. It’s apparent from the moment you sit down, as a waiter sends a trolley of snacks to your table: peeled beets, pita bread, and yes, two shallow bowls of red and green salsa.
Sammy’s Grill is everything at once: Israeli, Mexican, American. You can start a meal off with tabbouleh and baba ganoush, and end with perfectly seared prime rib. I ordered a generously-sized matzo ball soup and five corn tortillas stuffed with ground Middle Eastern sausage, with a modest pile of roasted nopales on the side. The tacos, so meaty and so spicy, had the confounding taste of two regionally specific flavor profiles effortlessly cooperating as my confused senses gradually contextualized them into one.
I heaped on a scoop of cilantro and chopped red onions. One bite is enough to make you curious about all of the possibilities that two geographically disparate cultures could share—especially when melded into a single dish.