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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Katsuji Tanabe Delivers Fantastic Fare in One-Day Mexikosher Pitopia Pop-Up

Manhattan—Foodies of all backgrounds—but certainly the vast majority kosher-keeping Jews—lined Broadway near Times Square on December 15 for the second-ever Mexikosher Pop-up at Pitopia. The one-day event, orchestrated by part-time Teaneck resident and Pitopia’s owner, Kevin Cohnen, drew people from near and far to sample the delicious, highly acclaimed food from Los Angeles-based celebrity chef Katsuji Tanabe.

With hours of operation from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., the event, which was spearheaded by Elan Kornblum of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine, served close to 1,400 hungry diners (and those looking to take a little extra home to loved ones). Available for purchase were Chef Tanabe’s signature fare: a choice of burrito or three tacos of birria, lamb braised in banana leaves with guajillo sauce for 10 hours; carnitas, brisket confit in duck fat; and pollo a la pibil, a Mayan-style chicken with a mix of aromatic and sweet flavors. All items were offered with fried black beans and a yellow rice with garnishes such as guacamole, pico de gallo, cilantro, pickled red onions, escabeche de carrots with jalapenos, grilled cactus and salsas including mango habanero, chipotle, salsa verde and salsa rojo. Chef Tanabe said, “The food that I served was the same from our last pop-up, but I tweaked it a bit because I keep getting better and better at improving my cooking ability.”

The flavors of the chicken were well defined, featuring unique and distinct spices with a hint of sweetness rather than the burn that many generally associate with Mexican spices. The lamb was braised beautifully; the end results were soft and delicious bites throughout the entire meal. The brisket portions were plentiful, adding meaty goodness to each bite. Even those who are not fans of guacamole said they could eat Chef Tanabe’s guac any day. His black beans, too, were cooked past al dente and likely the best black beans many kosher-keepers have ever tried.

The staff recommended the tacos so that patrons could truly appreciate the individual flavors; indeed, having a chance to enjoy Chef Tanabe’s unique flavor profile in each distinct taco was a delight, especially as all three tacos had different garnishes. Tacos were double wrapped, so the excess shell was perfect to dip in the salsas, which certainly packed a punch or two. The hot sauce had an initial sweetness but with a kick at the end. The chipotle was spicy but subtle enough. The salsa verde was mild with a non-cloying sweetness. The larger burritos contained “the works,” and while they certainly were flavorful (and still a preferred option against tacos—there’s so much to enjoy in the satiating wrap), the burritos offered a more of a combined experience; it was much harder to ascertain individual flavors in each bite.

Chef Tanabe has built a fairly well-known reputation as a celebrity host, as a competitor in Bravo TV’s Top Chef season 12 and a winner of Food Network’s Chopped. His celebrity empire in the kosher world endures because, as owner/executive chef of the Los Angeles-based Mexikosher, he is essentially the only non-Jewish TV personality chef who has business interests catering to the kosher palate. “I never picked kosher. Kosher picked me. If you told me 20 years ago that I’d be cooking in a kosher Mexican restaurant, I’d have never believed it. [But going] kosher changed my life.” His second appearance in New York is hopefully his way of potentially testing the market (again, as he did in the first pop-up earlier this year) to solidify plans to establish a food empire in the Northeast. “I’m very proud of being so loved coming to NY from LA,” he said.

Surprisingly, though he’s likely surrounded by fans everywhere he goes, even with his fame, it doesn’t all go to his head. Those attending the pop-up observed Chef Tanabe in the assembly line greeting each and every patron (and refusing to shake hands, lest the germs contaminate the food) and helping serve the food. All in all, everyone came away happy and full, and much had to do with the preparedness of Cohnen, Chef Tanabe and their very efficient staff who maintained the crowds throughout the 12-hour shift.

As Pitopia owner Cohnen said, “It was an unbelievable day—the busiest day we’ve ever had.” Chef Tanabe agreed. “Each [time], it gets busier and busier.” Unlike the first pop-up, they were well prepared and didn’t sell out (except for a brief period of time when lamb wasn’t readily accessible). “[Chef Tanabe has] really made himself into somebody by using the kosher market. The kosher market doesn’t really get access to celebrity chefs. This is an opportunity to bring a concept to New York, to bring [patrons] the experience,” Cohnen said. In having successfully launched two pop-ups, Cohnen reinforced his interest in bringing other concepts to New York. With its central location right near Times Square, Pitopia can make any type of pop-up concept accessible to anyone in the general vicinity and beyond.

“Every time I do a cooking competition, I’m always representing the Jewish community and I’m proud to serve the Jewish community. I’m proud of having amazing friendships,” Tanabe responded of the reception to this pop-up and his general presence in the community. Of course, without the community, this pop-up may not have ever happened.

What’s next for Mexikosher and Pitopia? The New York plans are uncertain. But Cohnen said that a pop-up in Israel is in the works. Keep up to date by visiting http://www.pitopiausa.com.

By Tamar Weinberg

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