LAists visits: the corner of Whitsett and Burbank, for Bengali fish and lentil head curry, exceptionally soft pitas and Pittsburgh-style pizzas


Diversity in Los Angeles is expressed in different ways. Our goal with this coverage is to focus on communities through the food they make and sell, spending time in that ubiquitous but often overlooked institution of Los Angeles – the strip malls – to get to know our neighbors better.

It’s about two hours and forty-five minutes before sunset on a Friday and the start of Shabbat, when Orthodox Jews stop working, shopping and traveling for 24 hours.

I’m Jewish but secular so I don’t always think about navigating Sabbath logistics – but I’m thinking about it right now as I try to get into the extraordinary crowd Cambridge Farms supermarket parking lot on the corner of Burbank and Whitsett in Greater North Hollywood.

Bask in the glorious valley sunshine at the mall located at the intersection of Whitsett and Burbank

(Brian Feinzimer

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Cambridge Farms

The store closes at 4:30 p.m. on Fridays, and there’s a Shabbat rush, so I only have a few minutes to get in to grab a bag of those exceptionally soft pitas and always delicious day-old half-opened bourekas that I promised my wife.

Inside a busy grocery store where an older man in glasses, a yarmulke, a black jacket and a long white beard stares at the camera.  A large sign hanging from the ceiling indicates "Natural and Organic."

Cambridge Farms attracts shoppers with its wide selection of kosher products.

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People online speak English, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and Yiddish. Everyone is in a hurry.

I notice six varieties of frozen potatoes, rabbinism-approved Oreos from Argentina, and a soy paper seaweed alternative for making a batch of shellfish-free sushi, alongside a pile of yarmulkes.

The Cambridge Farm store began stocking kosher food for the growing Orthodox population who were drawn to the area by the synagogues, kosher restaurants and the lure of an eruv.

(An eruv is an unbroken border that allows observant Jews to carry items in public on Shabbat. There has been one in effect in this part of the valley since 1983, bounded by highways 101, 405, 170 and 118.)

North Hollywood-Valley Glen-Valley Village is probably one of the most diverse Jewish neighborhoods in the country, with distinct Orthodox communities. The Sephardic congregation Em Habanim is the heart of Jewish Little Morocco. There are shuls who trace their lineage to Lithuania (and some to New Jersey). In my parents’ block, there are observant Israelis and Orthodox Jews from El Salvador.

I get the pitas and the bourekas – and I go out.

The exterior of Spice Plus is painted clay red with a white sign above that says "Spice Plus restaurant and grocery store Halal fresh meat and fish market." There are signs in the store window advertising other businesses and others saying "We accept EBT" and the Lotto.

Spice Plus specializes in halal meat and fish.

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More spices

I walk past a small, modest-looking store covered in decals for products, lotto ads, and EBT. Spice Plus is a Bangladeshi halal meat and fish market that has been a South Asian grocery store and restaurant since the early 2000s.

Muhit Imtiaz introduces himself and shows me around. He arrived in Los Angeles earlier this year from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He had helped his uncle, the previous owner, in the shop for a few months before it was sold to the current owner, his other uncle.

He says they are one of the few Bangladeshi places in the valley. In addition to South Asian staples, they specialize in selling freshly slaughtered halal meat, frozen fish from the Bay of Bengal, homemade yogurts, pickles, and Gulab Jamun.

Their chef is also an expert in Indian cuisine, but she is back in Bangladesh, so when she returns later this month, their restaurant will be offering chicken tikka masala, garlic naan and chicken samosas and with vegetables in addition to their signature dishes. Although they mainly cater to a Bengali and Indian clientele, says Imtiaz, “we like to share our culture and our food with everyone.”

A dark-skinned man in a blue polo shirt stands behind a hot food counter protected by glass.  He is holding a large metal spoon as he serves rice to a plate.

Muhit Imtiaz helps his uncle at Spice Plus

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We like to share our culture and our food with everyone.

—Muhit Imtiaz

He offers to prepare me a plate — white rice with beef curry, and a head fish and lentil curry, says muri ghonto, a jewel in the crown of Bengali cuisine. I am very satisfied with this unexpected meal.

Muhit is an MBA student and when he is not studying he comes to the market to help his uncle with the family business. He tells me how his arrival in Los Angeles totally reminded him Grand Theft Auto.

He says that back home in Bangladesh, he used to interview local food establishments himself as an intern on a local radio show called “Foodies”.

A brown-skinned man and two small brown-skinned boys stand in front of a refrigerated section filled with different types of produce.  Above them is a white sign with red letters indicating "Meat department." Behind them, a woman reaches into one of the refrigerators.

Spice Plus primarily serves Indian and Bangladeshi communities in the area.

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Gorilla Pies

The first thing I notice when I walk into gorilla pies, a pizzeria a few doors down, was the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine storage box hanging on the wall. I also had one and used it to store tapes in my 1998 Saturn Wagon which I used to drive around the valley.

There’s a story for everything on the wall, says chef Ben Osher. It’s a photo of the Chinese restaurant where his family ate every weekend. It’s a photo of her mother as a child with a pizza on her head.

There’s stuff all over the walls because Osher wanted the Gorilla Pies aesthetic to resemble his childhood home. Baseball pennants, tchotchkes, photographs, collages, drawings, dioramas, a Garbage Pail Kids deck of cards on a copy of The Noma Guide to Fermentation – a blend of family traditions and childhood nostalgia.

Chef Ben Osher of Gorilla Pies sits at a table and draws on pizza boxes.  He is a fair-skinned man wearing a black baseball cap with yellow letters saying G P. He smiles and listens to a person sitting across from him wearing a face mask.

Chef Ben Osher prepares pizza delivery boxes of his Pittsburgh-style pies, which some say are some of the best in Los Angeles.

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After more than a decade in other people’s kitchens, Osher wanted a place of his own. Gorilla Pies is a personal expression – his culinary expertise mixed with the comfort foods of his youth.

A former Nobu chef who helmed Michelin-starred kitchens, he started pulling gonzo pizza out of his apartment during the pandemic and built a following. It opened a physical store and was named one of LA Times food critic Bill Addison’s favorite new pizza places.

A white wall contains various framed photographs.  There is also a toy lizard on the wall.  Towards the bottom is a small metal container containing a yellow menu for Gorilla Pies

Personal items adorn the walls of Gorilla Pies

After his years of cooking for executives, celebrities, and oligarchs in fancy restaurants, there’s something refreshing about how Osher talks about making what he calls “utility food.”

The circular dough becomes my bodyguard

—Ben Osher, Chef, Gorilla Pies

Osher has the chops to do almost any kitchen — but he tells me he likes to work by a set of rules. He says “circular dough becomes my lifeline” and within the confines of a pizza he can improvise.

This kind of flavorful experimentation gives you Char Siu and Pineapple (“The Big Kahuna”), Popcorn Buffalo Chicken (“The Great White Buffalo”), or simply reinventing a Reuben sandwich as pizza (“The Rabbi”).

A lot of care goes into his pies. The dough holds up for 24 hours, the water is filtered through a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis system to ensure consistent pH levels, and it exclusively uses organic Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes grown in California.

Osher is a secular Jew like me and chose this mall because it reminded him of his home – Squirrel Hill, a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where Hypebeasts and Chasids co-exist, reminiscent of Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

A slice of pizza sits on a small metal tray lined with black and white grid paper.  The slice contains fresh white mozzarella mixed with green pesto.  The crust includes bubbles of brown spots where the crust has been charred by the cook and is sprinkled with whole basil leaves.  Next to the pizza is a small pile of fried, light brown chicken wings.

A slice of Abloh (off-white pie) served with a side of crispy wings.

(Brian Feinzimer

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Outside Gorilla Pies is a sign that reads “Osher Not Kosher” – a tongue-in-cheek reminder to his Orthodox neighbors that they probably won’t want to eat at his place, but he’s still part of that community. Relationships are usually copacetic – he gets upset when people shake his locked doors to see if he’s open – but he’s genuinely offended when religious people ask him “why do you have a mezuzah?” He doesn’t elaborate on why that’s so offensive, but I get it — he has a mezuzah because he’s proud to be Jewish — and someone who might be more observant doesn’t have the power to question your Jewishness.

Being unabashedly proud of who you are, what you stand for and where you come from is on full display in this plaza this Friday afternoon at the northeast corner of Whitsett and Burbank Blvd.

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