Forget about that double chili cheeseburger or Taco Bell's Nachos BellGrande next time you're stricken by the late-night munchies.
Toast Cafe in Sherman Oaks serves up delicious, accessible breakfast and lunch dishes into the late hours. No relation to Toast Bakery Cafe near the Beverly Center, this tiny, Israeli-influenced eatery offers a healthy, deeply satisfying solution for folks with after-hours appetites. And for cinephiles, the simple cafe works great for an evening dinner after a movie at the local ArcLight.
If you visit during breakfast hours, you may find the warm presence of owner Yael Tal. She hails from Israel but her ancestry traces back to Aleppo, Syria, and Poland. Tal will patiently explain dishes to diners unaccustomed to exotic-sounding fare, like the locally elusive Yemeni dish malawach or shakshuka, the baked egg dish popular throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The cafe has maybe a dozen tables inside and roughly a half dozen outside. The chronically chilly have no need to worry; there are a number of heat lamps in the outside patio to ameliorate the uncharacteristically unpredictable weather we've been having.
The restaurant is kosher dairy, which proscribes the consumption of meat and dairy together, among other strict religious edicts of kashrut (the canon of Jewish dietary laws), and has been given the imprimatur of the rabbinical authority. Breakfast is served all day — until midnight on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends — but Toast closes in the early afternoon on Fridays in observance of Shabbat and reopens for dinner after sundown on Saturdays.
Breakfast fiends will not miss the applewood-smoked bacon or the country-fried steak and eggs that one would find on most American diner menus. Instead, diners at Toast feast on malawach, circular discs of flaky, freshly fried dough, which are essentially the Yemeni answer to classic buttermilk pancakes. The dish became common in Israel after Yemeni Jewish immigrants — many of whom relocated at the end of the 1940s — brought the flavors of their homeland with them from Africa to the Middle East.
Toast Cafe's ultra-crisp malawach is paired with the traditional accompaniments of mild, shredded tomato salsa, sliced green olives and hard-boiled eggs. It's just about the most simple yet comforting breakfast one could consume. But malawach remains hard to find. The acclaimed and iconic kosher purveyor of the elusive malawach, Magic Carpet on Pico Boulevard, closed more than a decade ago. Since then, there has been a significant void of the breakfast dish in Los Angeles despite the ubiquity of standard Middle Eastern foods such as falafel and shwarma.
Another exotic dish you won't often find in Los Angeles restaurants is the baladi tilapia, which is essentially seasoned, grilled tilapia fillets with garlic-laced tahini sauce that's typically drizzled on falafel pita sandwiches — and comes with a side of a whole, peeled Japanese eggplant roasted just so that it turns almost to a sprightly custard at the merest touch of your fork.
The menu also includes standard breakfast dishes such as omelettes, French toast studded with fresh berries and confectioner's sugar, and fruit crepes. For lunch, one could enjoy grilled salmon salad, chopped BBQ tuna or thin-crust margherita pizzas. A simple Mediterranean-style salad — just tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with salt, pepper and olive oil — is the definition of refreshing.
Toast Cafe has a wide range of espresso drinks, but the kicker is that it serves café hafuch, an Israeli take on the latte with a layer of steamed milk and instant coffee on the bottom, another layer of espresso on top, and the requisite layer of foamed milk riding shotgun. Arriving in an aesthetically pleasing clear mug, the hafuch tastes as good as it looks. One oddity on the coffee menu is the Nescafe, a drink popular in Israel with a mug of steamed milk on one side; and a dispenser of instant (yes, instant) coffee on the side that you pour in to your taste, which amounts to a makeshift DIY cafe au lait. Feeling like dessert? The molten lava chocolate soufflé is the perfect complement to the espresso drinks.
Like these beverages, the service is warm and sweet. Yet during busy hours, your food might take some time to arrive. You will likely hear Hebrew spoken by Israeli expats or the observant Orthodox Jews who frequent the cafe. Despite the inherent dietary limitations of the menu, the myriad and exotic dishes happily rise to the occasion. Special dishes —including a spicy Moroccan fish, Tal says — will appear on future menus, so surprises await with every visit to Toast Cafe.
15001 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 461-2900, toast-coffee.com.