She Beat Drugs, Found Love, And Makes L.a.'s Best Jewish-mexican Pastrami Taco

Posted: Dec 02, 2021

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.

By Allen Salkin
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