When Leonardo Nourafchan was 3 years old, he learned how to cook his first dish: polenta.
In his multicultural Persian-Italian-Jewish home in Los Angeles, he was always surrounded by food. His Persian grandmother would make things like gondi, chicken or ground lamb meatballs she served on Shabbat, or tahdig, a pan-fried, crispy white rice traditionally coupled with Iranian stew. When Nourafchan’s Italian grandmother would cook, she’d make pasta and roasted chicken and potatoes. He loved it all.
“I was enamored with food at a young age,” he said.
Though Nourafchan came from a traditional Jewish home, he didn’t keep kosher while he was growing up. He’d eat at local Mexican eateries throughout LA, and Mexican cuisine quickly became his favorite food.
“I was going to spots in East LA serving brain and tongue tacos,” he said. “It was so good. It was unique and off the grid.”
At the same time, he was struggling in his personal life. He had dropped out of high school and thought about working instead. Maybe he’d become a chef, he thought.
“I had this moment of clarity that I wanted to cook,” said Nourafchan, who then told his mother, a successful, high-powered lawyer. He remembers her responding: “Absolutely not. Do you think I’m going to let you not go to college?”
Nourafchan’s mother then sent him to Israel. He enrolled in a post-high school program at Bar-Ilan University, where he managed to sneak in without a high school degree. He did well there, got his GED, and then returned to the states and enrolled at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., majoring in International Affairs. He graduated magna cum laude, forgetting about cheffing along the way.
“I was in the system now,” he said. “I was supposed to get a real job.”
However, once Nourafchan started working in white-collar office jobs, he didn’t like it. For years, he was a real estate agent in Beverly Hills, specializing in multifamily investment properties. Though he was successful and able to provide for his wife and child, he didn’t enjoy going in every day.
“The week I turned 27, my manager called me into his office,” he said. “He told me they loved having me there, but it seemed like I didn’t want to be doing it. He said to go and find what I really loved and do that instead.”
Although there was pressure on him to support his family, Nourafchan knew he couldn’t ignore that nagging voice inside of him any longer.
“There was a moment where it was clear,” he said. “This was my chance. If I was ever going to do something, it had to be now.”
Hopeful about the future, Nourafchan started cooking for his family and friends and catering for offices and parties, but he wasn’t bringing in enough money.
“My wife was pregnant with our second child at the time,” he said. “I needed to get more training as a chef.”
At the time, in 2017, LA had a few dozen kosher restaurants, many of them serving Israeli food or American fare like burgers and hot dogs. Nourafchan knew that he needed to move to New York City, which has a much larger Jewish population and many more kosher restaurants with diverse offerings.
“New York City was the mecca of kosher foods,” he said.
Nourafchan talked it over with his wife, and she fully supported him. Together, they moved with their young child to New York so that he could work in restaurants there. He would spend 12 to 14 hours a day making minimum wage at the top kosher restaurants there, including Mike’s Bistro, which Nourafchan said is arguably the best kosher restaurant in the world.
Though it was a tough few years, Nourafchan learned what he needed and came back to LA. He met someone who was opening up a new kosher restaurant, Charcoal Grill & Bar, a high-end, Mediterranean-inspired steakhouse, and hired him to be the head chef.
“We were wildly successful,” he said. “I managed to put together the most incredible crew. We had the number one line cook from Mastro’s.”
Charcoal, which is located on Beverly Boulevard near The Grove, would be packed out every night with young people who enjoyed the blaring Israeli music, high-quality food, and modern vibe. But when Covid hit, the restaurant had to shut down, and Nourafchan was out of a job.
“I was confident I would figure something out, though,” he said. “I had this new concept for a kosher Mexican restaurant.”
LA had once been home to a kosher Mexican eatery years prior (fittingly called Mexikosher), which was run and operated by Katsuji Tanabe, the winner of the reality show “Chopped.” Tanabe has since closed his restaurant down and moved on, leaving a vacuum in the kosher Mexican food space. Nourafchan wanted to fill that void without taking a big risk during Covid, since no one had any idea when the world would open back up.
In 2020, he rented kitchen space from the kosher grocery store Western Kosher on West Pico Boulevard, and began serving food from there every night. He called it Lenny’s Casita.
“I hired all my staff from Charcoal back,” he said. “The rest was history.”
Nourafchan’s menu was comprised of authentic street food and kosher versions of popular Mexican food: the Kosher Crunchwrap Supreme, a flour tortilla with protein like chorizo, chicken or cachete (beef cheek), fried chicken tacos, short rib taquitos, and smoked brisket tacos. It’s strictly kosher food; there’s no non-kosher meat like pork or seafood like shrimp or crab. The menu doesn’t have any butter or cheese on it either, since observant Jews don’t mix milk and meat.
By the summer of 2021, Lenny’s Casita was a hit, appealing especially to the younger generation of kosher consumers, who were open to trying non-traditional foods. Nourafchan was soon able to open up Lenny’s Casita as a restaurant on West Pico Boulevard, near Robertson, in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood there. The restaurant has a light-up neon green sign and outdoor seating, and the menu has now expanded to offer soups and vegan items, like the popular corn ribs and with margarine and garlic and crispy cauliflower.
The chef said he would be nothing without his Mexican staff, who helped to create the menu and constantly suggest new items.
“We have many restaurants in this city, and Mexican cooks dominate the kitchens,” he said. “We’re training them to make hummus or sushi or Italian food instead of letting them do what they do best. Now, they’re sharing their recipes from their moms, sisters, aunts and grandmothers. It’s coming out so amazing. The authentic Mexican flavors come directly from them.”
Thinking ahead, Nourafchan is coming up with a way to honor Nowruz, the Persian New Year that falls in March. He’s going back to his roots and giving his menu an Iranian twist, making Lenny’s Casita a truly multicultural experience.
“Maybe we’ll make a Persian taco,” he said. “We could do a koobideh (meat kabab) taco or burrito with some tarragon and torshi (pickled mixed vegetables). That would be good.”
8823 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.