Photo by Shannon SibayanOrange County seems just too spic-n-span Christian to host a real New York-style Jewish deli, but try telling that to the folks at Kosher Bite in Laguna Hills, a cluttered room where the air conditioning is three ceiling fans on their last wobbly rotations, potato-and-barley soup is boiled daily, and the Sabbath means rest. Smoked herring and gefilte fish sit chilled in the deli counter below the tray of spinach dumplings and a small plot of kugel, the sweet noodle pudding loved by no one but Yiddish-speaking grandmothers. Shelves bulge with Israeli products (matzo crackers, ultra-chewy halvah bars and Hebrew-lettered Bazooka Joe that tastes just like its goy brother). Loaves of challah and rye crouch near the kitchen's entrance. Cans of Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, a Gotham staple since 1869, stand next to the cash register. Near the forks and napkin dispenser is a picture of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall . . . taped to a wall.
And then there's the menu, as stubbornly borscht belt as Carl Reiner. Kosher Bite prepares hefty potato latkes and knishes and a matzo ball soup with its squishy eponymous attraction rising like some Hawaiian volcano from a simple plastic bowl of chicken broth. The New York-style hot dogs are a symphony in simplicity: prepared with a succulent Hebrew National knockwurst; topped with sauerkraut, mustard and a long pickle; and laid in an extraordinary bun brushed with a smidgen of honey.
Most folks come for the sandwiches, all stuffed between rye, served with a pickle and smeared with searing mustard. The meats are deliciously retro: rich, cold chopped liver and beef tongue; soft, beefy pastrami and salami; creamy, smooth lox that spreads neatly over Kosher Bite's toasty pumpernickel bagels. The corned beef is pink, multi-folded and rather salty: brilliant. Regardless of complexity, all sandwiches maintain their structural integrity thanks to the hearty rye bread.
If you want to play the politics game, you can also indulge in the veggie platter of hummus, falafels and tabbouleh. Palestinian intellectuals have railed against what they consider Jewish appropriations of the foodstuffs, but they conveniently forget it was Yemeni Jews—that is to say, Arabs—who introduced these snacks to Israel. Besides, I could understand the protests if Jews fundamentally altered the taste of these dishes, but Kosher Bite doesn't. Sure, the hummus is chunkier than what you scoop up in Little Gaza, but it's just as garlicky and even better with its light drizzle of olive oil. The tabbouleh salad is moist and flavorful with crunchy bulgur wheat. The falafels? Mintier and less fried than usual, these dark orbs could bring peace to the West Bank for at least one lunch.
KOSHER BITE, 23595 MOULTON PKWY., STE. H, LAGUNA HILLS, (949) 770-1818.
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