In 1985, Tamar and David Peleg decided to head west and try living in an American city that wasn’t New York. They’d been in the United States for less than a decade, having originally come from Israel for college, and were not yet citizens or parents. Curious to continue exploring the country, they arrived in Southern California and connected with a fellow Israeli expat they knew from New York who had decided to move out to Los Angeles. The Pelegs stayed with their friend in the San Fernando Valley as they searched for their own place. Realizing that the Valley was relatively cheap and safe, they settled on an apartment along the Encino-Tarzana border. Two years later, they had me.
It’s a story that repeats itself among so many Israeli immigrants in the city: move to Los Angeles, stay with a friend or family in the Valley, settle in the area, and then host the next wave. But why the Valley specifically?
“The climate is the same, the topography is the same,” Tal Yona, owner of Hummus Bar and Grill in Tarzana, says of Israel and the San Fernando Valley. And it’s true, there are plenty of similarities between both regions. You could easily confuse the hills of Haifa and those of Laurel Canyon at certain angles, or the energy along Ventura Boulevard on a Saturday night with Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. And as the growing popularity of Israeli cuisine over the last decade highlights, the abundance of fresh, year-round produce in LA (including avocados, eggplant, citrus, and Israeli kitchen staples like tomatoes and cucumbers) is a natural fit for the community’s palate. But while the historically Jewish Fairfax district, and even the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, are more American Jewish communities, the Valley is a Jewish Israeli community.
Israeli food is not the same as the Jewish American food found at, say, Canter’s Deli or Brent’s. Jewish American cuisine is largely that of Ashkenazi Jews; the Israeli kitchen, however, encompasses flavors and influences from countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Think vegetable-centric and aromatic, with spit-grilled meats and flatbreads. Israeli food shares dishes with Palestinian and Lebanese cuisines, from which it took many influences; it also incorporates traditional items from Yemen (spicy zhug sauce, for example) and Iraq (amba, a pickled mango condiment, can be found at every Israeli pita stand). Those flavors mirror immigration patterns to Israel from much of the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s as refugees fled pogroms elsewhere.
Israelis themselves started emigrating to the San Fernando Valley during the 1960s and 1970s as the area blossomed with cheap new housing. A brain-drain back at home meant young Israelis were flocking to the U.S. for better universities and more career opportunities. A few scattered expats found one another, which attracted even more, and a community was born. Garry Aizin, co-owner of Tel Aviv Fish Grill, came to stay with family about 15 years ago and began working in restaurants immediately, ultimately opening his own business in 2018. “You have Israeli synagogues and groceries and restaurants from Sherman Oaks down to Woodland Hills. Even if you don’t speak English, there are people here who speak Hebrew. So, the Valley feels like home even though it’s not,” he says.
For anyone looking to devour spit-roasted chicken, lamb shawarma, pillowy pita, and cinnamon-sweet baklava dripping with honey, the stretch of Ventura Boulevard running west from the 405 is an excellent place to start.
Here are eight picks for where to feast on Israeli food in the San Fernando Valley:
Hummus Bar and Grill
A feast at Hummus Bar and Grill might be the closest to Israel you can get in Los Angeles. Not only are your server and most patrons speaking Hebrew, but the food here is as fresh and flavorful as anything you’ll find along Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Order a plate of the Jerusalem Mix (chicken breast, thighs, heart, and liver spiced with cumin, sumac, and more cooked over charcoal), get a side of hummus with pita, and enjoy a lazy afternoon meal out on the patio or in the relaxed atmosphere of the dining room. Owner Tal Yona ran a bakery in Toronto before taking over Hummus Bar in 2007, so you know the pita will be great.
Hummus Bar and Grill is located in Tarzana at 18743 Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91356
Tel Aviv Fish Grill
When the owners of Tel Aviv Grill decided to expand, they converted their original location into Tel Aviv Fish Grill — keeping the casual vibe and making use of their ample outdoor space. As for the menu, they started slinging Israeli breakfast staples like shakshuka and Israeli salad (chopped cucumber and tomato tossed in olive oil and lemon). In addition, you’ll find an array of fish like tilapia, salmon, and sea bass served with pita, hummus, and multiple salatim (meze). The branzino is a special treat here, served with pickled lemon and a buttery sauce with a spicy kick. Those familiar with Tel Aviv’s seafood institution The Old Man and The Sea (and its dizzying amount of salatim) will feel right at home here.
Tel Aviv Fish Grill is located in Tarzana at 19014 Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91356
Street Cafe By Aroma
For years, Aroma has been a go-to for Israelis in the Valley to nagev (nosh and catch up over an order of pita and hummus) or sit with a Turkish coffee. The place got a redesign and rebranding in 2018 to Street Cafe By Aroma. It feels fresher if still a bit no-frills. Luckily, the basics of the menu are the same. Find heartier fare, too, like a sabich plate, or malawach (Yemeni flatbread) served with a hard-boiled egg and tomatoes.
Street Cafe by Aroma is located in Encino at 18047 Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91316
A newer addition to the Valley’s Israeli scene, Mizlala’s popular vegetable-forward menu has birthed two other locations (West Adams and Hollywood, which are geared more for takeout and lunch). At the original Sherman Oaks spot, the za’atar labneh laffa is a fragrant blend of spices with a tart yogurt-like spread. For those who prefer meat, the chicken shawarma with tangy amba sauce will make any Israeli feel at home. The apricot lamb tagine is a Moroccan specialty and a feast with saffron rice, buttery flatbread, and lamb that falls off the bone.
Mizlala Sherman Oaks is located at 4515 Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91403
You’ll find Aviad Yalin (also known by his Instagram handle @Avi_Cue) popping up around the city, but most frequently along Ventura Boulevard. Yalin grew up in Israel cooking over an open flame and remains a spit master, turning out wagyu beef shawarma, Lebanese arayes (meat-stuffed pita), smoked oxtail with homemade hummus, and shakshuka with spicy merguez. With Avi Cue, Yalin is preparing traditional Israeli and Middle Eastern dishes and elevating them with his remarkable grilling techniques and use of the high-quality ingredients. For meat lovers lucky enough to get a limited ticket to one of Avi’s pop-ups, it’s an incredible treat.
For updated location information follow @Avi_Cue on Instagram.
In Israel, you’ll find burekas at most street food stalls, and it’s a common breakfast item as well. In Tarzana, Burekas Plus is the perfect pit stop for a warm potato bureka toasted to perfection and topped with sesame seeds and a hard-boiled egg. The cheese burekas, recently returned to the menu, are a fan favorite. Beyond the flaky, savory, phyllo dough hand pies, you’ll find schnitzel, shawarma, shakshuka, and Israeli salad — all kosher, of course. While Burekas Plus usually pops up outside the Office Depot in Tarzana, follow their Instagram for updates.
This kosher bakery and cafe is a great place to grab an Israeli breakfast. Try the Jerusalem bagel with za’atar, the burekas plate with tomatoes and cucumbers, or go for something more soulful like the spicy, slow-simmered shakshuka. You’ll also find vegan pita kebabs, and pita sandwiches with eggplant or cauliflower fried crispy and served like shawarma. If it’s a midday break you’re looking for, Roladin is the perfect place for a cappuccino and a doughnut; not a uniquely Israeli treat, but delicious nonetheless.
Roladin is located in Reseda at 19365 Victory Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91335
Step into Joe’s Falafel and you’ll feel like you’re ordering a pita sandwich or some shawarma at the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. The falafel’s crispy bite paired with the creamy hummus is hard to resist ordering again, but you’d be robbing yourself of the rest of the menu. You can’t go wrong with any of the laffas, and the kafta is a treat of juicy, generously spiced beef. Be sure to finish with a piece of rosewater cake, or baklava as flaky and sweet as anything you’ll find in Joe’s hometown of Ramallah.
Joe’s Falafel is located in Studio City at 3535 Cahuenga Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90068