With these kosher choices, the rabbi won't go hungry

Email|Print| Text size + By Maureen Costello
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2007

The chirpy beat of a Shania Twain hit pulsates as Rabbi Moshe Waldoks examines the overhead menu at Café Eilat in Brookline in search of a light lunch. He finds it quickly: pizza.

"If you're really kosher, you could not eat pizza" at other restaurants, he said. "This is the only kosher pizza place in Boston."

Waldoks is the spiritual leader of Brookline's Temple Beth Zion, former standup comedian, adjunct college professor, and coauthor of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor." He also loves to eat, and eats only kosher food. With all those credentials, he was the perfect guide to kosher restaurants in the area, and a Globe reporter recently caught up with him at six spots over a week's time.

Born in Ohio to concentration camp survivors, Waldoks, 58, was raised in Brooklyn on a traditional Eastern European diet. "Which was not great," he conceded. "Lots of meat and potatoes. You will find very few Polish salads."

One of his favorite restaurants is Rubin's in Brookline, where he eats at least once a week. Digging into a colorless bowl of buckwheat groats and pasta bowties, Waldoks casts a broad smile. "Kasha varnishkes," he says, "also known as peasant food." The side dish scores points in texture, but tastes salty and dry to the uninitiated. A taste you have to grow up with, he says. "Kasha is a good side dish with brisket because you can soak up the gravy with it."

The potato knish was especially pleasing, as was the pastrami sandwich, served with the obligatory deli mustard and kosher dill pickle.

A man comes to his table and shakes hands. Waldoks asks about the man's book, which is to be published soon. Such friendly exchanges will be repeated often during our tour.

He samples a "Pilgrim wrap," from the new menu, designed to attract a younger, more contemporary crowd. "Rubin's would not survive if it only appealed to the Orthodox community," he said, giving the turkey sandwich thumbs up, the same score he gave the four-layer dairy-free strawberry shortcake.

Chinese food is a natural for kosher, Waldoks said, because it's void of dairy products. Waldoks regularly orders takeout from Taam China's Newton location, so he is familiar with the menu when he sits down to dinner at its Brookline site. "Being Chinese kosher is kind of easy," he says, "because you don't have to put pork on the menu."

Indeed, you won't find pork or shrimp fried rice, but you will find veal boneless spare ribs. Waldoks orders an eggroll. "Tasty, but a little dry," and the house special soup: bits of chicken, beef, and veal in a lightly spiced broth. "Very good."

As in Rubin's, Waldoks is greeted by one acquaintance, then another. "There are so few kosher places, you tend to know everyone," he explained.

His Hunan special half & half consists of shredded beef in Peking sauce and shredded chicken in garlic among fresh broccoli, zucchini, and snow peas. The beef has a nice kick and the chicken is pleasingly tender, the vegetables very fresh. There was talk of making broccoli nonkosher, he says, but that may have merely been the wish of children who don't like to eat it.

Ruth's Kitchen in Brookline blends into its menu some Korean favorites, such as chop chae - mung bean noodles that resemble gummy worms but taste much better. Ruth Kagan, 74, a native of North Korea, is selling her business to Edna Bension, 46, who promises to add some flavor from her native Persia.

Kagan offers a dish of hot and fresh wontons. "My wontons are strictly Korean," she tells Waldoks, who samples the doughy delicacy. "That's a hell of a wonton," he tells her.

Just down the street, the food at Rami's is so good, people travel from Cape Cod for a falafel plate with hummus. Rami's is operated by Chaim Cohen, 22, whose father, Rami, opened the Harvard Street storefront before opening the Sababa Grill, a kosher restaurant in Las Vegas. Both menus boast the family's Israeli heritage.

"People don't care that it's kosher," said Waldoks, exchanging pleasantries in Hebrew with Cohen and other guests. "They come here because it's very good."

The homemade hummus, he says, is smooth and nutty and makes an excellent sandwich with the accompanying pita bread and deep-fried falafel balls.

He selects a bottle of Malty, a strong syrupy beverage with a hint of black licorice, to go with the Ultimate PuPu Platter, an assortment of kebabs, falafel, grilled chicken, homemade hummus, and crisp salad.

"A lot of families come here because the kids can have hot dogs and fries and it's reasonably priced," said Waldoks. Strict Orthodox families tend to be large so eating out is expensive, he said, adding that kosher restaurants cannot rely on these families to support them.

Marc and Beth Epstein, owners of Milk Street Café, uncovered a niche market while abiding by kosher law. They operate in Boston's Financial District, which shuts down every Friday afternoon.

The Epsteins opened a tiny dairy kosher restaurant on Milk Street 26 years ago, which has since expanded to 2,400 square feet with a kiosk, and - in season, hot dog stands - in Post Office Square. Though the restaurant is kosher, the word "kosher" is nowhere to be seen.

"We compete in the real world, not the kosher world," said Marc Epstein, adding that 95 percent of his customers do not keep kosher.

The Epsteins join Waldoks as he enjoys tangy tomato-spinach-feta soup in the Milk Street dining room. They laugh at his joke: "A Jewish waiter walks up to his customers in a kosher restaurant and asks, 'Is anything all right?' "

While Waldoks can joke about his ethnicity, he is serious about his food. "The kosher business is booming," he said. "One reason is [that] having the food supervised is becoming more important as we begin to mistrust the food industry. And there's the possibility that kosher is better for you."

He pauses. "Then again, potato chips may be kosher, but they're still potato chips."

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