Kasher, a fan of B&H in New York, and the burritos in California. Illustration: Adam Mazur

“I grew up with deaf parents on welfare, but I always loved fancy food,” says Moshe Kasher. “When I was a little kid, on my birthday, I would ask to go to a fancy meal in lieu of presents.” Kasher — a comedian, writer, producer, podcaster, and author — says fine-dining restaurants are just another world where he’s never quite fit in. His new memoir, Subculture Vulture, is about six very different groups he’s found himself a part of: Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bay Area rave scene, Hasidic Judaism, and Burning Man among them — each of which has its own cast of distinct characters. How did he navigate them? “Sharing a meal with someone,” he says, “is the best way to get to know them.” 

Wednesday, February 7
I start my day at the Union Station food court in Washington, D.C. I had an event here for my new book. I decide Chick-fil-A will be the funniest choice to start off this Grub Street Diet. I don’t remember if I’m allowed to eat Chick-fil-A, but I ate at a José Andrés restaurant the night before and he’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, so I figure these two meals will cancel each other out ethically. It will be my first Chick-fil-A experience ever. I do not want fried chicken for breakfast, but since I’m popping my Chick-fil-A cherry, I order the chicken biscuit anyway. The bad news? Chick-fil-A is pretty good.

For a change of pace, I eat lunch at an entirely different train station: the Moynihan Food Hall at Penn Station. I go with pizza because not sure if you know this, but New York is said to have the third-best pizza in America after Cleveland and, of course, my town, sunny Los Angeles, the Napoli of the West. I buy two slices at Sauce; the crust is so thin it’s reminiscent of the bread of affliction of my people. I fold both slices like a real New York guy — this way no one knows I’m a tourist.

For dinner, I head to B&H Dairy. It’s one of the last of the New York kosher dairy lunch counters — the original vegetarian restaurants. B&H was born not of a desire for health or to mitigate animal cruelty but for the real reason people should eat vegetarian meals: the knowledge that mixing meat and dairy is a grave sin that angers the Lord and will cause him to deny your entry into the book of life come Yom Kippur. I think my grandfather ate here. I know my father did. When my dad became a born-again Orthodox Jew, baptized in matzo-ball soup broth, this was the last place in his old neighborhood he could take me to eat since it’s kosher and, suddenly, he was too.

My dad, a former beatnik and an Abstract Impressionist painter who once rented an entire co-op building in the East Village for $200 a month, packed his paints into storage, left Manhattan, and moved to the “shtetl.” When I’d visit in the summer, fresh off the plane from my entirely secular life with my mom in Oakland, California, he’d throw slacks and a velvet yarmulke on me and then take me on guided tours of the old neighborhood, driving through Little Italy with the window rolled down. He’d point at Italian restaurateurs and say, way too loud, “MAFIA. THAT GUY. HE’S IN THE MAFIA.” I’d cringe and hide and hope the fact that he had the voice of a deaf man would prevent them from understanding him and tommy-gunning us down on the spot. The end of the tour would always be B&H. He’d order blintzes or, as they are called in France, “Jew crêpes.”

Tonight I have stuffed cabbage, swollen with rice pilaf and slathered in a tangy tomato gravy; a knish with a deep, dark mushroom sauce; and a bowl of hot borscht. I daub sour cream in the soup and talk for an hour with an old friend who has been an ASL interpreter for my family since the 1980s. He orders a grilled cheese with a fried egg on challah. We swap stories about the funniest scenarios from his current and my former career: ASL interpretation. We laugh a little and I cry a little when I see the empty stool where my dad used to sit and eat those blintzes. I wish he was still here to order some and embarrass me one more time.

Thursday, February 8
Sorry, guys: I’m at another food court, this time at JFK. I can’t help it! I’m on tour and, thank God, I’m headed home. I stare, paralyzed by the paltry options in front of me, my bag boring into my shoulder as I agonize over choices I do not desire: a Greek breakfast wrap, a bagel, or a breakfast burrito. Normally I’d go burrito, but I’m a California native and something about a burrito in a food hall at a New York airport just feels against my religion.

After a motionless pause ’n’ stare that lasts so long the TSA almost gets called on some “See Something, Say Something” shit, I move on to the Greek wrap because it contains spinach. My trip to the Greek Isles is dismal: a pile of industrially scrambled eggs, a handful of raw spinach, and a dappling of feta cheese all rolled up in a tortilla then thrown into a George Foreman–style wrap griller liberally sprayed down with Sysco Griddle and Grill cook spray. The tiny hash marks of char on the tortilla carry the faintest suggestion of fresh-cooked pita at an outdoor café in Mykonos.

Back in L.A., I catch an Uber directly to the Fox lot because I’m Hollywood scum. At the on-site News Cafe I order avocado toast and a smoothie. Avocado toast is the staple food of Southern California. It is the yam of Africa, the yucca of Latin America, the taro of Polynesia. The toast itself is multigrain, because of course it is. Are there edible flower petals sprinkled atop? Microgreens? You better believe there are. My smoothie is refreshing, with mixed berries, crushed mint, lemon juice, and a shot of Ozempic added in. It’s good to be home.

Believe it or not, it’s colder in L.A. than it was in New York. During the recent heavy rain, chunks of the Pacific Coast Highway crumbled off into the sea. All of this is a chilling reminder of the perils of climate change and the impending doom of all humanity. And it’s also a great excuse for a piping-hot stew.

My family and I eat at Edendale, formerly Firehouse 56 of the L.A. Fire Department and now a gathering place for the hoi polloi of Silver Lake’s down-and-out actor–comedian–podcast host community. The beauty of this hundred-year-old brick fortress of a restaurant is that your Wi-Fi signal is burned to a crisp the instant you step inside. It’s like dining in the ’90s. With our signal gone, my family and I make eye contact for the first time in months. Wow, my wife is beautiful! I love my child!

I order a steaming chicken stew with soft-as-a-pillow cubes of potato that disintegrate the moment they touch your tongue and fiery New Mexican green chiles in a tomato broth. It’s basically perfect. I split the Edendale Caesar with my wife — it’s a Mexican take on a Caesar salad with pepitas, cotija, dried corn, and chipotle spice. This might seem sacrilege, but it’s also a fitting homage to Caesar Cardini, the Italian immigrant who opened a restaurant in Tijuana during Prohibition to be able to serve a little vino along with his pastas and salads. Thus we have the Caesar that has been Mexicanized on my table.

I love this about L.A. It used to be Mexico, and you can feel that everywhere. It’s a mash of cultures, a puzzle of a city. Hating L.A. is so boring, so basic, I immediately dismiss people who say they do as unserious, surface thinkers, not willing to dig a little and find what beauty lies down below. Anyway, the Caesar is fucking delicious.

My kid orders the fish and chips and eats only the batter, complaining instantly that she’s stuffed beyond belief. This is an ever-present dance with children, or at least with mine. She’s constantly eating nothing, saying she’s full, and then the instant her head hits the pillow she cries, “I’m starving!” This forces me to become Daddy Javert, grunting, “Tonight you sleep hungry, Prisoner 24601. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll learn your lesson.”

Foolishly hopeful, we order her macaroni and cheese: a mug filled with elbow macaroni and baked with a crust of gooey Tillamook cheddar, then sprinkled with bread crumbs. She takes a bite and grimaces: “I hate mac and cheese!” This is news to us as she eats it 55 times a week.

Friday, February 9
I meet some old AA friends for brunch at Forage, a healthy counter-order spot down the street. I get the salmon bowl: thin slices of scrambled egg, garlic brown rice, shredded kale, bright pink pickled radish wedges, and a slab of soy-marinated salmon with wafer-cookie-crisp skin. My friends — who, like me, all got sober in their teens — and I discuss the perils of adulthood over coffee and brunch. “Justin,” formerly a homeless, suicidal teenage drug addict and now a partner at an architectural firm, is in town to speak at a convention for young people in AA. My friend “Candice,” who had psychotic breaks after dropping a 20-strip of acid and who spent time in and out of rehab (like me) and psych wards (like me) until she, like me, got sober at 15, is discussing her severance package after being laid off from a major tech firm she basically built from the ground up. We’re getting old. We’re all parents now. We discuss the anxiety of observing even the slightest behavioral twitch in our children when such behaviors in our own childhood were harbingers of doom. We agonize: “Will our kids still talk to us when we get old?” Please, God, say yes. And if not that, at least let them not turn out like us. Or actually, yes, do, just let them skip the rough parts. Then we tear into cinnamon rolls as though we’re naughty soccer moms on a cheat day.

On an Amtrak to Santa Barbara for the weekend — ya’ boy loves trains! — my daughter and I skip down to the café car to get her some dinner. She selects a Hebrew National hot dog and a bag of Rold Gold pretzel twists. Don’t feel bad for her: She doesn’t always eat hot dogs, microwaved bun and all, in a caboose of junk food. Her favorite food is uni, cracked straight from a spiny carcass, still squirming, fresh cleaned and brightened with yuzu dashi. She finishes the moist hot dog, we jump off the train, and I get ready for my dinner, which should be slightly better than the café car.

I meet my wife, Natasha Leggero, at a cast-and-producers dinner she was invited to for Chelsea Peretti’s film First Time Female Director. Benito Skinner is there wearing a Dior shirt-kilt combo that really just works. He calls me “king,” which I like, and we sit down at Bettina, which I love. It is a perfect pizza place in the hinterlands of Montecito that serves my all-time-favorite non-tomato pizza: the woefully named (if you hear it read aloud) pea pizza with sugar-snap and English peas, mint pesto, fontina, bébé kale, Pecorino Sardo, and lemon. I scream to the heavens when the server tells me it’s a seasonal pizza and peas are out of season. I mean, duh, of course I know when pea season is. Not to worry: The meal is still delicious. We order crisp cacio e pepe arancini dropped onto dollops of Calabrian-chile aïoli and a salad of local greens and chicories (which are totally in season) with herbs and a shallot vinaigrette. We also get a pasta my daughter would love: spaghetti with uni butter, Aleppo pepper, shallot, parsley, and lemon.

In the middle of our meal, Ryan Gosling randomly walks by and someone at my table — I won’t say who — involuntarily screams “Oh my God!” nearly loudly enough for him to hear. I get it: He’s perfect.

A tablemate asks if there are any non-tomato pies. “I get awful canker sores and my homeopath told me to avoid tomatoes,” he tells me. I feel his pain. I get them, too, but the margherita is almost worth ignoring a witch doctor for. I pass him a slice of the Sierra Gold potato pizza with mozzarella, Shooting Star Aries cheese, Root’s spinach, Calabrian chile, and basil. The golden potato crumbles soak a squeeze of lemon right up.

For dessert, we order a really odd dish called sourdough semifreddo. I ask about the preparation and it’s not what I expected. The restaurant soaks sourdough bread in sweet cream overnight and then pulverizes the mush, half-freezes it, and scoops it like ice cream. Then it’s topped with olive oil and balsamic. It’s like panzanella salad: the dessert, but without tomato — score for canker boy!

Saturday, February 10
My wife and I meet up with Chelsea and the crew again for brunch at Lucky’s in Montecito, which serves high-end diner food so the rich can gastronomically cosplay as salt-of-the-earth types while sprinkling pink sea salt (of the earth) onto $17 hash browns. I split a salmon eggs Benedict with Natasha that’s dripping with a citrusy hollandaise. The Cambridge rope-hung salmon is sour and smoky and exactly proportioned to the egg and the sauce. This is a delicate balance, always. Too little and it might as well not be there; too much and you feel like you’re eating a man’s tongue. The woman across from me just directed a film about Beanie Babies, and we realize we used the same doula. It’s a real apex day in white-people shit.

For a little opposite-of-white-people-shit energy, Natasha, our daughter, and her friend go to the best Chinese place in Santa Barbara, Meet Up Chinese, where piles of spicy Sichuan food are served by — not kidding — a robot in a dress and earrings. Sichuan food is the truest gastronomic pleasure of Los Angeles (and now Santa Barbara). I have eaten at plenty of Michelin-starred places and buzzy restaurants, and not one of them has compared on a deliciousness level to the yupo noodles at Chong Qing Special Noodles or, of course, the mapo tofu at Meet Up Chinese, which is smoky, spicy as hell, and spiked with tiny sour black beans. Swirled together, it makes a stew of the brightest, most compelling flavors, so delicious you cannot stop eating.

To my chagrin, they aren’t serving mapo tofu tonight. It’s Chinese New Year, and the restaurant is doing a special menu. Dinner is great, ceremonial though it may be: braised eggplant with a thick, sweet sauce; spicy rice noodles with spongy tofu; stir-fried chicken with jalapeños; and a pineapple-black-pepper beef. The two kids are transfixed by a Chinese New Year livestream beamed direct from Beijing onto the 120-inch TV behind the instruments that the restaurant always leaves sitting onstage. Natasha and I have been asking whether there will be a musical performance since Meet Up opened, and we’re always told, “Not tonight.” It’s starting to feel like the robot waiters just jam after-hours like the elves and the shoemaker.

The server hands the kids an envelope with “lucky money,” which turns out to be real dollar bills. Dinner just got two bucks cheaper. As we leave, the owner of the place gives my daughter and her friend some New Year’s swag, a cute little pencil bag with a cartoon lion embossed on the side, and they both say “thank you” with such synchronized adorability that the owner leans over and hugs them good-bye. I look over at the robot waitress and she’s crying a single tear of industrial lubricant, knowing that she will one day have to enslave these little cuties when AI strikes its final blow.

Oh, and the sesame balls were good, too.

Sunday, February 11
I have heard it said that Los Angeles is a taco town and San Francisco is a burrito town. After moving from the Bay Area 15 years ago, I have to say I agree. It’s all lettuce and refried beans slapped into a hastily folded tortilla wrapped in paper, sure to have a structural-integrity failure the moment you bite into it. I do not want a soft, fold-y burrito — I want a firm, upstanding tube, one that could be used as a unit of measurement, a dense duct with enough stuff in it to feed a family in dire straits.

There is one exception to the rule: My wife and I found the most delicious bean-and-cheese burrito years ago at Al & Bea’s, a Boyle Heights institution that has been serving homestyle Mexican American food since 1966. It’s a classic L.A. joint, operated by a family who lives in an attached home. They serve Chicano delights such as a chile-relleno burrito wrapped in yellow wax paper and the eyebrow-raising hot-dog burrito. But the star of the show is doubtless the bean and cheese. It is so shockingly delicious for such a simple concoction that Natasha and I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to get one. It contains no rice, no binding agent, just soft, flavor-busting refried beans, a fat handful of cheddar and green salsa, ladled hot from a Crockpot, filled with magical spices and peppers and all the secrets of Al and Bea Carreon.

I made the horrible mistake of telling my Jewish friend Louis Katz how delightful this burrito is. He smiled with the thrill only a treyf-eating Jew feels when calling out the hypocrisy of a slightly more kosher Jew. “Delightful?” he said. “Beans aren’t delightful — there’s no way it’s that good if those beans don’t have pork in them.” The now-obvious truth slammed into me like a truck. I looked to the heavens and cried, ripping my garment in despair, “Why would you tell me that?!” I haven’t had Al & Bea’s since. I know too much. It was my bite of the apple and my last bite of the burrito.

But it was not my last bean and cheese — not by any means. I love a bean and cheese. Its innate inferiority to meat-laden burritos, stuffed with rich birria or crispy carnitas, makes a bean and cheese that manages to be delicious all the more impressive. I, being of the B&H persuasion, have dedicated my burrito life to this narrow chasm of the burrito valley.

Today for lunch I am eating my other favorite burrito in Southern California (not including San Diego; that’s Mexico North). We stop at the UC Santa Barbara campus favorite Freebirds. It’s a chain but a very unusual one. It sold its name to a holding group in the Bahamas, and that group opened 55 locations while the original stayed autonomous. It is run by the original owner and is the only Freebirds worth entering.

I take my place in line as I have done since I was an undergraduate here. I order the quesarito, a monster-size tortilla that’s pre-prepped with a thick layer of shredded cheese and placed gently into a tortilla steamer so the cheese becomes melted before being loaded with burrito guts. My all-time favorite burrito in the Bay Area, and thus the world, is from Gordo Taqueria, which uses a similar technique but with two slices of white cheese. The steam billows up from the machine in great cumulus puffs, and when they remove the tortilla it is soft, pliant, and oozing with melt.

I always order the same thing at Freebirds: rice, pinto beans — the only way to bean (no refried, no black) — red and spicy salsas, guac, pico de gallo, and (this is where I lose you) fried onions and barbecue sauce. Look, I know. Barbecue sauce? Fried onions? You’ll just have to go try it. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you a hot-dog burrito at Al & Bea’s.

I ask Freebirds to cut it in two and go pick up my wife. We sit with our kid in the Sunken Gardens of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, perhaps the most beautiful government building in the New World, and each eat a half-burrito as a mariachi band plays and our daughter runs in the sun, laughing, chasing other kids, having the time of her life. It’s paradise here. The burrito is heaven too.

While I was at Lucky’s, my child went on a mushroom-foraging hike with family friends. She came back with six fat, golden chanterelles. My wife and I were both pretty proud of her plunder. As the only competent cook in the family, mushroom duty fell to me, and there’s a certain hippie satisfaction in washing dirt from the hills off a mushroom your child foraged from nature herself. I realize I don’t really know how best to prepare the mushrooms and, perhaps foolishly, I grind up the chanterelles in a food processor. I make sure to ask my kid if this was a good idea, and she says “yes,” but she’s 6 and thinks putting her face in our German shepherd’s mouth is a good idea too.

In butter, I fry minced shallot and slices of garlic from Natasha’s mother’s garden in Illinois that she sent to us via FedEx. Then I dump in the chanterelles for a mushroom fry. I run outside and strip a couple of handfuls of fresh rosemary off of a bush, chop it, and toss it in as well. In goes the juice of a lemon from a neighbor’s tree and some white wine, which I reduce down, adding a little more butter as I go. I pour all of it into a bowl of linguine and stir in some ground Parmesan. I think I overflavored the whole thing: It’s delicious but not particularly mushroomy. The family doesn’t mind too much.

At the dinner table we play Rose, Bud, Thorn, and everyone says their rose was our meal, which makes me feel good. In the game, your “rose” is the delight of the day, the “thorn” is the worst part of the day, and the “bud” is something you’re looking forward to. My bud is you, reading this and maybe feeling like we ate a meal together.

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