When Elizabeth Heitner, 26 years old and newly sober, stared at the Pacific Ocean and contemplated what to do next, she thought back to her happiest times growing up.
For some families, holiday dinners require days of brining, chopping and parboiling. For the Heitners in their Upper East Side apartment, a Passover seder or a Hanukkah feast meant a single call to Zabars, the Manhattan gourmet emporium, for takeout matzoh ball soup, potato latkes, brisket and the like. Her father Kenneth, a tax lawyer, works long hours. Her mother, who ran an after school program at a private school, does not love cooking.
To contemplate chef Elizabeth Heitner now, four years later, on a warm night in Los Angeles plating the celebrated Jewish-Mexican food she creates with her romantic and business partner, Chef Nestor Silva, is to understand that even a simple holiday meal with loved ones can mean everything.
Heitner and Silva’s pastrami tacos, swordfish bacon and egg tostadas, and other inventions, served three nights a week at their popup restaurant Malli at Melody Wine Bar in Silverlake, are being lauded in Los Angeles. Here on the low-key gourmet crossroads of Virgil Avenue, Lower East Side brininess marries Guadalajaran comfort food, interweaving cultures in a way only food can.
During an interview one recent afternoon before service started under shade sails and string lights, Heitner recalled Jewish holiday meals of long ago where seats were filled by her parents, her brother, his girlfriend, her great aunt Ana, and her grandmother Molly.
“I was always looking forward to those Jewish holidays because I knew we’d all be at a table together,” she said. On regular nights, “my dad worked late and it was always me watching SpongeBob by myself.”
There was, occasionally, some kitchen time with mom, the most memorable making brownies from a box. “My favorite part was licking batter from the bowl,” Heitner remembered, her gaze softening behind round steel eyeglasses.
In 2013, Heitner, a senior in college, was stealing money from her parents bank account to support an addiction to Oxycontin. She could not handle the pressures of her final year in the Gallatin program at New York University, when she was supposed to be figuring out what to do with her life. While she was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the drugs, she said, “became my entire life, and I had this moment when I realized I’m going to waste my entire life away doing this.”
A stint at a sober living house in Brooklyn did not clean her up. She hated the first in-patient rehab she tried in Pennsylvania, too. Her parents sent her to a facility in Los Angeles.
“I knew recovery is good in California and I needed to be far, far away,” Heitner said. It was after three months of in-patient work and during a year and a half of sober living in Marina Del Rey, that she began thinking of the good times in her childhood and was able, finally, to calmly consider her next steps.
“It was this rebirth where I had to change every single thing in my life,” she said.
A corporate job felt wrong. Cooking school was an idea, but she didn’t vibe with the school part. She found an internship at Lucques, the market-driven eatery started by legendary L.A. chef Suzanne Goin and restaurateur Caroline Styne.
Silva was a sous chef there.
“It was easy to see from the beginning that Elizabeth was in this for the long-haul,” Goin recalled in an email, “and wanted to really understand and soak in all aspects of the kitchen, our food and the methods and madness behind it.”
Heitner was afraid that if word of the quickly-kindled relationship with Silva got out, people would mistakenly think the romance would be what landed her a paying job. It certainly wasn’t, Goin said. “She and Nestor were very stealth about keeping their romance under wraps, but, knowing them both individually and culinarily, I must say they are a perfect match.”
Lucques shut down in March 2020. By then Silva had moved on to the Michelin-starred Santa Monica restaurant Rustic Canyon. But the pandemic found them both at home in the apartment they still share.
Heitner had been planning a long-delayed trip home, but that became impossible during the early days of quarantine. She missed her family.
“I started cooking Jewish food at home so I could feel closer to them at a time when I was far away,” she said.
Silva, born in the South Los Angeles neighborhood Cudahy to a mother from Mexico and a father from Argentina, was on his own exploration, cooking dishes such as chochoyotes, fried masa dumplings in soup. He was working his way through an Oaxacan cookbook, she through Leah Koenig’s “The Jewish Cookbook.”
Then the magic happened. Tasting the dumpling soup, Heitner said to her boyfriend, “this is kind of like matzoh ball soup. We could do something with that.”
What else could they mash together? Mexican chocolate babka, tsimmes with tamarind braised sweet potato and salsa macha — a lot of ideas flowed.
“We realized there was no Jewish-Mexican food in L.A.” Silva said, joining Heitner at a long wooden table for part of the interview. “These are two big populations here, so it was this aha moment she had.” Heitner smiled. “I just wanted to stay busy and make money.”
She tried a few pastrami recipes, smoking them on a small electric rig on their balcony, before developing a “secret” one to make a dish that has kept tables filled for more than a year.
Unlike in New York where most pastrami is slung on rye at delis, L.A. has long served it many ways — try the Oki dog with pastrami-wrapped beef hot dogs and cheese.
“L.A. loves pastrami, and L.A. loves tacos so it just made sense.” Heitner said.
She posted a menu on her Instagram. The first one was four courses for $40 per person pickup, $45 with delivery: masa ball soup, cucumbers and schmear (marinated cucumbers, scallion schmear, celtuce, ancho everything spice), pastrami taco (Tehachapi tortillas, pickled peppers, chile de arbol salsa, avocado crema) and Mexican babka (Sonora flour, raisins, guajillo syrup). They sold out as many as they could make. The popular chef Jeremy Fox, co-owner of Rustic Canyon, placed an order and posted about it.
When you’re on the right path, opportunities open up.
“Paloma had the idea to find someone to cook a Jewish-Mexican menu,” said Eric Tucker, who owns Melody with his wife Paloma Rabinov, who has Jewish-Mexican heritage. “Two weeks later we saw it on Instagram.”
By August 2020, the pop-up was alive. Eventually it needed its own name. Heitner thought about her grandmother, who always told a story that her parents, of Polish-Jewish descent, had named her Malli, but she’d gone most of her life by the Americanized Molly on her birth certificate. Poking around Ancestry.com, Heitner found a census document from her great-grandfather confirming his daughter’s name was originally Malli.
In honor of this heritage and those takeout holiday dinners, the restaurant was named.
The menu the night I ate there included faux chicharrón, a Ferran Adria-worthy vegan transformation of red sauerkraut and tapioca pearls into something crunchy and pork-rindy. The taco now has a melted slice of Swiss cheese and its tortilla is made of a heritage masa that gives it a yielding chewiness and appealing funk. The swordfish bacon and egg tostada made me wish for Whole Foods to add a swordfish option in the bacon aisle. Less cholesterol, more flavor (but maybe more mercury?).
A tomato salad with rye crisps and red-veined sorrel made me think of the first time I had the mind-blowing crispy rice bowl across the street at Sqrl — something fresh and crunchy and new that says, here we are, people, love us! Dessert of a Hibiscus and honey poached pear in crosswise slices reminded me of the kind of restrained and refined finishers served at Mexico City’s molecular staple Pujol. You leave feeling good about yourself and what you’ve just given your body. The fabulous natural wine list at Melody helps.
For Hanukkah, they’ve added sufganiyot, an Israeli donut filled with guayabate and mascarpone cream. Some of the guavas are from Silva’s mom’s tree.
“She used to make guayabate all the time when he was growing up so the smell of guava always reminds him of her,” Heitner said.
Malli’s owners aren’t looking for a permanent space yet. The work-life balance of a three-nights a week place is sustainable — and profitable for Heitner and Silva. She now travels every couple of weeks to use a friend’s professional-grade smokers in Redondo Beach to produce pastramis — they are smoked to the finish, not steamed as at many New York delis.
During a pandemic lull, Heitner and Silva finally made it to New York City. After dinner one night, Molly/Malli, now 97, had a question for her granddaughter’s doting suitor.
“Nestor Silva, what kind of name is that?”
Everyone knew what she meant. Are you Jewish?
He’s not, but sometimes bending the truth to make an old woman happy is okay. The family never told grandma about the extent of Elizabeth’s troubles. Kenneth spoke up before anyone else could.
“Silva-man. Ma. It’s Silvaman.”
Malli took it in and nodded.
“Oh,” she said. “That makes more sense.”
Allen Salkin is the author of numerous books, including “From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network”