Despite myself, I'm aligned with the line-standers. My jaded heart tries to protest, to cast derision on those who choose to wait on tired legs for $13 avocado toast or $11 hot chicken sandwiches. Yet I somehow cannot muster the appropriate disgust. While I don't care enough about a cronut™ or a rainbow bagel or the Instagram followers these items might get me if I were to brave those particular lines, some experiences — I must reluctantly admit — are worth the slow shuffle toward sustenance.
I bring this up because, aside from the hours-long line for Howlin' Ray's in Chinatown, the most easily derided wait for a table (or stool) in L.A. these days is the one being endured by the crowd at the door of Mh Zh in Silver Lake. The difficulty of the name alone is enough to cause consternation (it's a shortening of the Hebrew phrase mah zeh, which roughly translates to "what is it?"), but there is so much more here that invites ridicule.
Where to begin? The menu is scrawled in marker on greasy brown paper bags. Most of the food is served in bowls, accompanied by rustic bread. It's BYOB. It has a phone number and a website, but neither is currently functional. Your server might not remember that he's already taken your order, but he will confer "blessings" upon you multiple times. The crowd is generally, painfully Silver Lake–ian, high-waisted jeans–wearing and quirkily beautiful. The seating is almost entirely outdoors on the sidewalk in a jumble of colorfully painted but rickety tables and chairs. (Who knows what they'll do if it ever rains.) And yes, you will most likely have to suffer through a long wait for one of those tables. A friend who lives nearby says that she often worries about running people over when she turns onto Maltman Avenue from Sunset because the crowd outside of Mh Zh is so dense it spills off the sidewalk and into the road.
The corner building, which used to house Madame Matisse (and then, for a short while, Purgatory Pizza), is taken up almost entirely by the open kitchen, where chef-owner Conor Shemtov and his band of cooks work behind a counter. Shemtov grew up in Los Angeles, but his father is Israeli, and he's spent a lot of time eating in Israel. As such, this is being billed as an Israeli restaurant, a distinction that's becoming common as a catch-all designation for restaurants with jumbled Middle Eastern influences. This is both understandable — the food of Israel is genuinely broad, a mix of Arabic and Mediterranean and European and countless other foods contributed by the Jewish diaspora — and problematic. In a time when appropriation is a major part of the food conversation, we ought to consider the implications of one young country being given ownership of dishes that have been around for millennia.
But of all the (many) new restaurants that use Israel as inspiration, Mh Zh captures the feel of a casual Israeli cafe the most honestly, in both its lackadaisical hipster vibe and its food.
You may be tempted to start with an order of the bread (from Bub and Grandma's) with labneh or tahini, but most of the other dishes you'll order come with that same bread, sometimes toasted and sometimes not, dense and grainy and malty and pleasingly sturdy. A round of cardboard stands in for a plate underneath the lovely house salad "molto benne [sic] style," which indeed takes its cues from Italy: peppery arugula, a shower of sharp cheese, a light but pert dressing and a section of ripe avocado. A $6 dish of potato comes on brown paper — the large, basic Idaho potatoes have been cooked through, then cut into quarters and finished in the coal-fired oven that burns hot and forms the heart of this kitchen. A few minutes in that oven and the potato quarters arrive with skins blackened, a wedge of charred lemon alongside for squeezing, and flowering rosemary as garnish. It's as basic a dish as any served anywhere in L.A., a smoldering potato with minimal garnish on a brown paper bag, but it's cheap and satisfying and delicious.
Every single part of the beet is put to use here: the root in a starring role along with hazelnut and labneh; the greens as a side or as an accompaniment to short ribs that have been marinated in soy and finished in the coal-fired oven; the stalks as pickled punctuation for a dish of ground lamb in a pool of tahini. That lamb dish, advertised as "lamb ragooooooo" (length of the "ooooo" dependent on the day and the enthusiasm of the menu writer), is Mh Zh's most elemental don't-miss item. The lamb is unapologetically funky, and the tahini base gives it a savory tang that — along with sumac and preserved lemon — creates a level of crave-ability rarely encountered. I want to eat it all the time, every day, forever.
And that's kind of it. There's a bean soup/puree, "mayocoba ful," that has preserved lemon and sumac and is wildly dynamic and simultaneously elemental and comforting. There's a simply grilled rib-eye steak and occasionally a whole head of cauliflower that's beautifully singed. There's a pile of peas over stracciatella cheese, with green garlic and nasturtium leaves. And yes, there's hummus, and it's mild and creamy and wonderful.
Once you've endured the long wait and popped open your BYO bottle and the dishes begin to arrive at your wonky table, it's hard to keep up any façade of annoyance. If you do manage to maintain some ambivalence throughout your meal, the last vestiges will likely dissipate when you get your check. I have stuffed myself silly here numerous times and have never yet cracked $50 (pre-tip) for two people. Mh Zh is cheap, cheap enough to warrant the wait and the grease-stained menus and the impossible trendiness of it all.
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SHOW ME HOW
Look, it's entirely possible you might hate this place, and I'd sympathize if you did. But it would almost certainly be for reasons other than how the food tastes and what the food costs. Because for all the derision we tend to cast on food trends, there really is a simple formula that stands behind almost every Los Angeles restaurant with this brand of popularity: Make food that's better than it needs to be and make it affordable. If you do that, I and the rest of the line-standing rubes will show up without fail.
MH ZH | Three stars | 3536 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | Tue.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Plates, $4-$22 | No alcohol/BYOB | Street parking