Date: Wed 02/15/2006
FILLING A VOID / At Suzie's
Grill it's all kosher, all the time / It took a village to
raise the funds for an eatery that keeps Jewish law.
By: PEGGY GRODINSKY
MANY restaurants are born of intensely personal dreams. An
ambitious chef yearns for a place of his own to hang his
toque; a family of hardworking immigrants reaches for the
American dream by opening a takeout shop; an entrepreneur bit
by the restaurant bug spies a business opportunity.
Suzie's Grill, Houston's only kosher meat restaurant, was
born of a community dream. It opened in late November on South
Braeswood Boulevard because so many families in Houston's
Jewish community hungered enough for such a place to invest
"Before this restaurant opened, there wasn't even one
option," investor Ben Medetsky said. "If a person wanted a
good steak, or a good burger, there was nowhere to go."
Susan Goldstein, the "Suzie" on the marquee, said it was
"community pressure" that led her to open the modest
restaurant, which serves a homey menu of Persian, Israeli and
American food. A longtime kosher caterer in Houston, a devout
Jew and mother of five, Goldstein had no restaurant ambitions
when she was approached last summer and asked if she would
consider buying the former King David restaurant. She couldn't
afford it, she told Rudi Yeroshalmi, the owner of Bridal
Connection and the dreamer and shaker behind a kosher meat
eatery for Houston. Though he'd never invested in a restaurant
before, he put up $20,000 of his own money and persuaded about
45 other families to contribute smaller amounts.
"This is what is called a mitzvah (good deed), " Yeroshalmi
said, referring to the uncertain world of restaurant
financing. "It was not a business transaction. Who is
put up $10,000 to $20,000 of their own money, put it into the
restaurant business, hoping (the restaurant is) going to make
it (and) they are going to get their money back? It's a
mitzvah. It's putting back into the community."
To keep kosher, or kashrut, is to adhere to the dietary
laws that tell observant Jews how to eat. At their most basic,
these laws instruct Jews to forgo pork and shellfish and to
avoid mixing dairy and meat in a single meal, or even on a
single set of dishes or pots. The laws of kashrut stem from
the Torah, which is what Jews call the first five books of the
It's impossible to determine exactly how many of Houston's
roughly 50,000 Jews keep kosher. Nine percent of respondents
to a 2001 survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater
Houston reported that they do "all the time;" another 16
percent answered "usually."
In addition to Suzie's Grill, Houston Jews who keep
strictly kosher may eat at the cafe at the Jewish Community
Center; grab a pizza, boureka or falafel (all nonmeat) at
Saba's Kosher Pizza on Fondren or dine at Madras Pavillion on
Kirby (also nonmeat). For practical reasons, restaurants
usually serve either meat or dairy foods, not both. The delis
at Randalls and Kroger at Meyer Park are kosher, too. In
comparison, Manhattan has 163 kosher restaurants, according to www.totallyjewishtravel.com.
"There are a few hundred families in the orthodox community
in Houston who really - I cannot say the word `suffered' - but
were very much inconvenienced by the lack of a place to go out
to eat. That's the truth," said Chabad Rabbi Betzalel
Marinovsky, who oversees one of the two organizations that
certified Suzie's Grill as kosher. "And she opens a solution.
There was a void in the community, and she filled that void."
Houston's Jewish community desired a kosher restaurant for
other reasons, too. They are, Medetsky says, a "litmus test"
of the strength of a city's Jewish community. Moreover,
Suzie's Grill accommodates observant out-of-towners in Houston
for business or medical treatment and religious Jewish
teenagers on dates. It is also a place where Jews from across
the spectrum of belief - from Orthodox to Conservative to
Reformed - can mingle. Often divided by doctrine, they are
united over kebabs and khoresh (Persian stew), schnitzel and
"What is really interesting and heartwarming for me is, you
go in there and there are people from the reformed synagogues,
and gentiles, sometimes all the way to your ultra-orthodox,"
Yeroshalmi said. "There are times there is somebody sitting
there in a miniskirt on one side and in the table next to them
you have an ultra-orthodox family completely covered from the
The fact that Jews of all stripes eat under one roof, her
roof, means a great deal to Goldstein, who said it brings her
the feeling of "nachas." "You know what the word `nachas'
means?" she asked. "Nachas means such joy, like a mother would
see a child walking and get such joy from this child, a
2-year-old just started to walk."
At the same time, Goldstein emphasizes that Suzie's Grill
is an ordinary restaurant with good food and fair prices,
where Catholics, Hispanics, African-Americans
else is welcome. For that reason, the sign outside - a drawing
of a kebab - doesn't advertise the fact that Suzie's is
kosher. She picked the name "to appeal to the Texan crowd."
Goldstein came to New York City from Iran when she was 13.
Soon after, her father was diagnosed with cancer, which
eventually killed him. She learned to cook to help her mother,
who was by turns at the hospital and minding the family's
In 1977, Goldstein moved to Texas with her husband, so he
could attend law school. For many years, she volunteered
making kosher lunches at her children's school. That led to a
catering business, Dessert Delights, which she continues to
operate. She opened Suzie's Grill on Nov. 27, a date heavy
with meaning. It is the birthday of her daughter Erika, who
was seriously injured in a car crash earlier last year but was
able to return to law school, after many surgeries, in
A few months into her run as restaurateur, Goldstein is
experiencing all the usual headaches and a few extra ones,
too. Finding, training and retaining a crew is tough. The pace
can be grueling and getting kosher supplies takes extra effort
and expense. The day I interviewed her, she was running 40
minutes late, a key employee was ill and some equipment was on
the fritz. Goldstein was tired and perhaps a little
overwhelmed. But she says she is sustained, in part, by her
sense of obligation.
When I comment that her investors must have a lot of faith
in her, she responds, "That's the whole thing that scares me
... it's a lot of responsibility. You see, if this was on me
alone, (then) if I fail, it would be "my "failure. It would be
my money. I don't have to answer anyone back but me. But (now)
if I fail, I fail everyone else. That's a big undertaking.
It's scary to know that all these people have this trust in
Her investors are members of 10 Houston congregations. Some
of them know each other, or know her; some don't. Families
invested varying amounts - $500, $2,000, $5,000 - for a total
of more than $100,000, Goldstein said, structured as an
interest-free loan. The Torah does not allow Jews to charge
one another interest.
Decisions about running the restaurant are Goldstein's
alone. After two years, a period intended to let Suzie's Grill
become profitable, the agreement stipulates that Goldstein
will begin to pay off the loan. If the restaurant fails - the
failure rate in the United States is about 30 percent,
according to a recent study by Ohio State University
Hospitality Management Professor H.G. Parsa - Goldstein isn't
obligated to pay the loan back.
Kosher dining options are so important, the investors say,
it's a risk they're willing to take.
HOUSTON'S KOSHER EATERIES
Suzie's Grill: 5925 S. Braeswood Blvd. Source: Houston
KOSHER POLICE The job of mashgiach is one of the odder ones
in the food business: PAGE F5.
HOW TO TALK KOSHER Kosher: Food prepared according to
Jewish dietary laws. The literal meaning is fit, proper or
worthy. Americans also use it as slang for anything that's
proper or correct.
Kashrut: The act of observing Jewish dietary laws.
Kosherize or kasher: Verbs for the process of making
equipment, or entire kitchens, kosher.
Mashgiach: Supervisor or overseer. An observant Jew who
ensures that food has been prepared in accordance with kosher
Hekhsher: A symbol on a food product that certifies it is
Pareve: Food, such as fruit, vegetables and eggs, that is
considered neutral under the laws of kashrut, meaning that it
can be eaten with either dairy or meat meals.
Treif: Not kosher. Source: How to Keep Kosher: A
Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Jewish Dietary Laws by
Lisë Stern (William Morrow, $25).
Recipes that accompany this article may be viewed on
Houston Chronicle microfilm or in the Houston Chronicle Recipe