Photo by Eugene Lee

Genghis Cohen’s Rice, Rock and Rolls

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The long-standing Fairfax joint serves Chinese cuisine with a sense of humor — and deep L.A. history.

For as long as many of us can remember, the Fairfax District has been a reliable mashup of challah and rock — Jewish bakeries and intimate music clubs dot the avenue that’s now also paved with Ethiopian restaurants and strutted by sneakerheads. Since they opened — starting in the ’60s, respectively — Canter’s Kibitz Room, Molly Malone’s, Genghis Cohen and Largo have served as incubators of the SoCal music scene, providing stages and cold beers for local emerging musicians.

When music industry mogul Allan Rinde conceived his restaurant, Genghis Cohen, in 1983, he put star anise, Stars of David and rock stars in one room, like a wise yenta who understood the particular celestial alignment of the city. The restaurant’s food came first  — “New York-style” Chinese nosh for people who chase chow mein on Christmas — the guitar-strewn music and “Jewish Mother” Bloody Marys followed. Rinde’s restaurant reflected his nostalgia for the food he ate as a Jewish person in New York City.

His friend Artie Wayne came up with the humorous name “Genghis Cohen,” a coupling of the first name of the Mongolian warrior-ruler and a common Jewish surname. The exterior was tiled pink-and-black with a scripted sign that looked made for TV, and the round tables inside were adorned with red napkins and chopsticks. Wayne hosted nights and was known for glow-in-the-dark puffy-paint outfits that he made and sold at the restaurant. Legend has it he had a light-up dance floor in his office. If you ask them, many of the people who eat there will tell you that they don’t exactly understand what’s Jewish about Genghis Cohen, but they don’t seem to mind; it just feels like home.

“It was Jew-ish and kosher-ish — I don’t know if it was kosher but it was kosher-ish — it takes a lot of rigamarole to become real kosher,” says customer Bruce Nahin, a Fairfax High graduate who started going to shows at Genghis Cohen around the time that it opened.

“A lot of people who haven’t been here assume that Genghis Cohen is a kosher restaurant; it’s a common misconception,” says Med Abrous, who took over Genghis Cohen with his friend Marc Rose in 2015. Before them, the restaurant had been owned by Raymond Kiu, Rinde’s longtime maitre d’ to whom he sold the restaurant in 1998.

“Allan Rinde, the original owner, was Jewish, and I think he probably understood the cultural joke, you know, better than anyone. And he said, ?Well, I’m a Jew, I love Chinese food. I’m going to embrace this. That’s what it’s going to be about,’” Rose says.

If you ask them, many of the people who eat there will tell you that they don’t exactly understand what’s Jewish about Genghis Cohen, but they don’t seem to mind; it just feels like home.

Rose and Abrous, don’t call it Jewish Chinese food or a Jewish Chinese restaurant. On Christmas, Rose says, the restaurant is packed from 10 a.m. until midnight. Abrous says it’s the hardest reservation to make in L.A. that night. (Last Christmas the restaurant served more than 500 guests, in addition to 200 takeout orders.)

“I haven’t asked everyone, but I would guess that there are no more people here that are Jewish, than are Catholic or Christian or whatever,” Rose says. “I think that eating Chinese food on Christmas has become an American cultural thing. It’s nostalgia, right? It’s about, you know, the big booths and the size of the eggrolls and the way the food was and the tea that you would pour — it’s the whole vibe.”

Producer and music supervisor Gary Calamar has made a tradition out of going to Genghis Cohen on Christmas Eve with his family. “When I first heard the name of the place, Genghis Cohen, I knew it was a place for me,” he said over email. “Chinese food with a sense of humor. Now I’m not the best Jew, but I do love the tradition of my chosen people choosing to go out for Chinese food for Christmas.”

The Calamar family secures their reservation before Halloween, “just to make sure we don’t get shut out.” Their order includes beef and broccoli, crackerjack shrimp, Szechuan green beans, shrimp lo mein and sizzling rice soup.

Los Angeles Public Library has archived Genghis Cohen’s menu in their digital image collection. Photo courtesy of LAPL.

The late Rinde, who worked in the A&R department at Columbia Records, was, according to friends, a great cook. He frequently entertained at his home and loved making Chinese food, according to friend and former Genghis Cohen waitress and performer Hollye Levin.

In the early days, the food menu featured chef Shu Hsuan Lin’s creative takes on Chinese restaurant classics, like egg rolls, hot and sour soup, kung pao beef, lo mein and mu shu pork. “Allan hired an old Szechuan chef who looked 100 years old and used to smoke cigarettes while cooking with the wok — you’d see ash drop in there,” Levin says.

Levin also says that she was one of the early mixologists in L.A. — she would often make cocktails for Rinde’s friends at his dinner parties and he enlisted her to design his cocktail menu.

“I made up concoctions and drinks that had fresh fruit in them, not canned or frozen,” Levin says. “Thirty-five years ago, bartenders were only using mixers from Seagram’s and crap that had a lot of sugar. Maybe you’d see a pineapple garnish, but nothing else was natural. I marinated garlic in vodka and used it for Bloody Marys at Genghis Cohen. I named all the drinks. In the old country — my grandparents were from Russia — they marinated stuff in vodka.” The Bloody Mary cocktail was dubbed “Jewish Mother.”

Bolortuya “Bogie” Kolodziej, a waitress who has worked at the restaurant for 14 years, assumed the owners were Mongolian, like her, when she walked by the place and saw a help wanted sign at Genghis Cohen back in 2005. She was 27 years old then and had recently moved to Los Angeles, where she was staying with friends and taking ESL classes in Koreatown. She didn’t find a Mongolian community at Genghis Cohen, but did find a family in the staff and customers, and recruited other Mongolian employees over time. Chinese diners seek her out and ask for Chinese-language menus. Her favorite dishes are walnut shrimp, green beans and the steamed sole filet.

Genghis Cohen’s classic wonton soup. Photo by Eugene Lee.

Once word got out about Genghis Cohen, it became a famous place to wait for a table — even for the famous. Hugo Martinez, who has been working at the restaurant for 29 years, remembers people lining up to get in on Sundays. With Cherokee Studios across the street and CBS down the street, celebrities like Luther Vandross, Rod Stewart, Alan Arkin, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Willis, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jerry Seinfeld became regulars.

Levin remembers the fierce competition to get a table — once someone slipped her a $100 bill. One of the more known “Seinfeld” episodes, “The Chinese Restaurant,” was born while Larry David and Seinfeld were on the waitlist at Genghis Cohen. In the resulting bit, Jerry, George and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant and are never seated.

Initially, Genghis Cohen was about a third of the size it is now, but Rinde slowly took over the other businesses on either side of the strip mall to expand the restaurant and add a performance space, Genghis Cantina, for his friends and the music lovers and performers he employed as hosts, waiters, busboys and maitre d’s. He hired talent agent Jay Tinsky to book the venue and 30 years later “JT” is still there. The draw for performers at first, Tinsky says, was the venue’s exclusivity.

“Allan was really picky about who I would book — acoustic-only,” Tinsky says. “By not booking a lot of people, it made L.A. musicians want to play there real bad. It was really busy and the music was emerging. We were the hot nugget at the time.”

He remembers hosting Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Morello on the small stage. Susie Cowsill, from The Cowsills, was a waitress, he says, and would put down her tray in the middle of the restaurant and sing. “There’s no paparazzi, so stars would come in there and feel at home,” Tinsky says. “And all the New York Jews like myself would come because it’s the only place you can get a New York eggroll in the city.”

Inara George, a singer-songwriter and musician and half of the indie-pop music duo the Bird and the Bee, first played there when she was 19 or 20 years old, with a band called Lode. She says the venue now is “absolutely exactly the same.”

Genghis Cohen’s bar director Yael Vengroff garnishes one of the restaurant’s Foo-Foo cocktails. Photo by Eugene Lee.

“I was so young, I didn’t even understand the pun of the name,” she says. “I had a funny manager, old-school, who managed Buffalo Springfield and people like that. He would put my band at the time at venues that were more of that era, and we played there quite a bit.”

Musician Ken Weiler and his band, the Four Postmen, have been playing at Genghis Cohen for 26 years. “We’ve been saying forever, we’ve got to play bigger venues, we can’t just play Genghis Cohen, but we’re still there,” he says. “It’s the smallest bar in L.A. and yet that has become something that’s really nice. When it’s done, you sit out and have a drink and everyone can talk.”

There are those who love Genghis Cohen for its comfort, and others for its celebrity. After nearly three decades, Martinez appreciates both. He proudly lists the names of actors and actresses he has served, including Doris Roberts and Jack Betts, who used to come in two to three times a week for orange chicken, potstickers and wine. He recalls a new couple who used to meet for dinner dates at Genghis Cohen in the ’90s. Now, they’re married with kids and enjoy meals there all together. But with history comes both joy and sorrow.

“A lot of customers have passed away,” Martinez says, “that’s a sad thing about working at a place for a long time. This place has been a family restaurant since the beginning. You feel like you’re working with family.”

As the current owners, Rose and Abrous are proud to say that they’ve made few changes except for some subtle improvements — a fish tank, a new carpet, booths, window treatments, a computer so waiters no longer have to memorize prices and add up receipts and organic vegetables and sustainable fish in the kitchen. “We love this place, which is why we bought it,” says Rose, who has been eating at Genghis Cohen for 16 years.

While the regulars still come for the dumplings and the history, newcomers are likely to stop in for the classic vibe and creative cocktails. “We want the drinks to do something we call the ‘Fajita Effect,’” Rose says. “When a fajita goes by your table, you’re like, I want that. Drinks need to be part of the show.” Waiting in line is less of a thing these days, but the famous still love Genghis Cohen, whether they’re stopping in for lunch or just ordering orange chicken on repeat toward their annual $10,000 Postmates bill like Kylie Jenner.

Recently, Weiler was sound-checking in the back room and Flea was standing there, scoping out the space for a show, perhaps for his Silverlake Conservatory, Weiler says. “You never know who you’re going to run into,” he says. “It’s not a scene, it’s kind of a quiet scene.”

All in all, Genghis Cohen is still doing its part to keep Fairfax weird. Local comedians and singer-songwriters will continue to take the small stage while their friends balance plates of fried rice on the wooden benches; barflies, mai tais in hand, will watch games on the small TVs on mute; regulars will tuck into their favorite booths to eat white rice with red wine; and on Christmas, hundreds of Angelenos will continue their tradition of breaking fortune cookies together at the biggest dinner party of the year.

Los Angeleno