Among the more likable cast members of this past season of Top Chef: Boston was often the most gregarious, outspoken and enthusiastic of any contestant in recent memory. Coupled with the fact that he owns and operates a popular Kosher meets Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles and is also in fact half-Mexican, Chef Katsuji Tanabe certainly has one of the most unique back-stories in the show’s long history. On Tuesday, swarms of Kosher diners, taco lovers and Top Chef fans braved scattered clouds and pouring rain to form lines outside of Times Square’s Pitopia, where Chef Tanabe would host a one night only Mexikosher Pop-Up that would serve as a test for a potential New York City opening of his own.
Although food service began in the afternoon, social media buzz promised that the restaurant would continue to serve hungry diners until midnight- or until the ingredients had run their course. It was unsurprising then that upon our arrival at just after 6pm, Chef Tanabe feared there would only be enough to serve for about another hour. Though umbrellas were lined up outside of the small and narrow fast-casual eatery, the orders moved swiftly and we found ourselves inside in under ten minutes time. The menu, posted online in advance of the special service, offered three different dishes, each served for $14.99 as a burrito or inside of three tacos.
Granted a $15 burrito is hardly a steal, but considering that Kosher fare is often a bit pricey and since the affair was one night only, we were willing to bare the brunt of the cost to meet one of the Chefs that we had rooted for all season long. Wrapped in white flour tortillas, we eschewed the chicken-based “Pollo a la Pibil” in favor of the savory “Birria,” a succulently seasoned lamb braised for ten hours and the “Carnitas,” an outstanding smattering of brisket morsels cooked decadently in duck fat. Each hand-wrapped, football sized delicacy was prepared on an assembly line with workers adding elements like creamy fried black beans, hearty rice, pickled carrots and red onions and a touch of Mexican-Israeli salad at each stop.
Tanabe was front and center from the get go- smiling for pictures with Top Chef fans and taking orders directly from paid customers as the massive vats of different meats continually cooked each protein on the counter behind him. It’s been said that New York doesn’t do Mexican like Los Angeles- and based on Chef Tanabe’s delectable offerings on Tuesday, the overall sentiment might just be correct. The flavorful brisket was just a touch superior to the braised lamb, with each torn shred of juicy meat soaked up with seasoning. Paired with the pickled vegetables and overstuffed with rice, both distinctive meats worked together admirably with the range of ingredients- leaving us poo-pooing at the many nights we’ve spent inside Mexican chain restaurants eating run-of-the-mill fast food. Admittedly, we don’t often go out of our way to eat Kosher in New York City, but sometimes it takes the work of a Top Chef to force you to open your mind a bit.
- Jane Van Arsdale