Aside from the historical context, the best part about Chanukah — as it usually goes for any Jewish holiday — is undoubtedly the food.
A whole holiday that encourages eating doughnuts? Count us in.
But in addition to those delicious jelly-filled morsels and bags of chocolate gelt, there is one culinary staple of Chanukah that stands out among the rest: latkes.
And for the 14th year, on Dec. 18, the Gershman Y held its annual Latkepalooza, which featured seven restaurants who put their own spin on our favorite fried potato dish. Federal Donuts was also there to provide some sweet sufganiyot to continue the fried food theme of the day.
The third floor was packed with about 350 people who showed up to the sold-out event to taste latke variations from Estia, Tria Tap Room, Frankford Hall, Jones, Sabrina’s Cafe and — new to the lineup — Mission Taqueria and Kanella, whose long line stretched across the floor for pretty much the whole time.
The kids’ band the Plants were playing holiday hits like “I Have a Little Dreidel” and children were running around covered in face paint, enjoying the music with their families and dancing along as they waited in line to trade in their tickets for latkes.
The multigenerational aspect is a big one for Gershman Y Executive Director Maxine Gaiber.
“It’s a great event, and I love seeing all the generations coming together over latkes,” she said.
While she didn’t get a chance to try the latkes — “The staff never gets to eat,” she said with a wistful laugh — she was happy that the event and the food served so many demographics, like the “foodies” who arrived promptly at 2 p.m. to get in line for the ones they wanted to try or the families who came later.
“I love to see the building being used; it’s a building that has a long history and it makes it as lively with kids and adults as it was in its heyday,” she said. “We’re looking forward to the 15th Latkepalooza next year. We’ll make it even better.”
When Latkepalooza started 14 years ago, it was the realization of an idea Nancy L. Hohns had to bring the community together.
At the time, she was on the board of the Gershman Y and the chair of its marketing committee.
“The organization was looking for a way to bring in members of the entire community to take advantage of their extraordinary programs,” Hohns recalled. “So I thought to myself, ‘Food, family and fun around the holidays seemed like a winning combination.’ We reached out to various restaurants with the invitation for them to create their version of the potato pancake — or as it’s traditionally known in our religion, as a latke — for Chanukah.”
In the first year, eight restaurants participated and the event was set up in the first floor auditorium, which Hohns said reminded her of a backyard barbecue with the smoke and smells as the latkes were cooking.
“Over the years, it has become more of a sophisticated event,” she said, “but never losing its original formula of food — very good food — family and fun.”
One restaurant that has participated every year since it opened about 10 years ago is the Greek and Mediterranean Estia Restaurant, whose version of a latke was a spin on the restaurant’s traditional Greek spinach pie dish, spanakopita.
Except this time it’s more of a spanalatke.
Using traditional ingredients like spinach, scallions and leeks, their latke changed to use a potato base instead of phyllo dough, Estia General Manager Jeff Hudson explained.
Halfway through the event, they ran out of the 350 latkes they made for the day.
“We do the same latke every year, we make more and more every year, we run out faster and faster every year,” Hudson said.
But even though he was sorry to pack their bags so early, he noted that it’s something they enjoy doing every year to support their Gershman Y neighbor, as the restaurant is just up the street.
“I just really enjoy the community,” Hudson said. “I like coming to the event. It definitely is something out of our norm. We don’t do a lot on-premise events, we don’t do a lot of off-premise type things. so it’s something just a little bit different.”
For first-time Latkepalooza goers, a few restaurants whose latkes stood out were Sabrina’s, which provided a cranberry-pear sauce instead of a traditional applesauce or sour cream to accompany the latke (in fact, there was a noticeable absence of applesauce as most restaurants seemed to favor sour cream or some variation), and Frankford Hall, whose offering tasted like a homemade latke your grandmother would make.
Scott and Jo Patchowski came in from Doylestown Saturday night for a short vacation in the city, ending their Sunday with Latkepalooza.
“I’m Jewish, so every time I get the chance to eat latkes … ” laughed Jo, waiting in line to try Kanella’s potato pancakes.
While Jo favored Sabrina’s latkes, Scott was more into the ones from Frankford Hall. For them, Latkepalooza was “something different” to do in the city.
Sami Perzin and Ashley Gotleib were enjoying their latkes at one of the standing tables set up for guests, sprinkled with decorative confetti shaped like dreidels.
The two, who have been friends since first grade, came with Perzin’s parents who had read about the event and wanted to check it out.
“We love latkes, and we just wanted to see what it’s all about,” said Perzin, who also liked Frankford Hall’s latkes best. “I never heard of [Latkepalooza] before and [my parents] let us know they got tickets so we tagged along. I’ve never been [here]; it’s pretty nice. We got to see new restaurants. It’s been fun.”
Gotleib also liked Frankford Hall’s best, noting she favors just “your standard latke.”
“It’s cool how they add different flavors to the latkes,” she said of the participating restaurants, adding with a laugh, “I was just looking forward to eating latkes.”
For some guests, the latkes have a deeper meaning than just a yummy fried snack.
“It’s part of our romantic history,” said a smiling Matt Heany, who was there with Aliza Mansolino.
“I love to cook,” explained Mansolino, noting she’s part Jewish. “One of the first things we cooked together was kugel, which is sort of like a latke.
“It’s all about the potato,” she laughed.
They were looking forward to trying new places and seeing what other variations there were on the food that is significant to their yearlong relationship.
“Just kind of coming and seeing the different vendors that were out here and seeing what new spins could be put on the latke,” Mansolino said. “And it’s a great cause. We’ve been to a couple events here at the Y and have always enjoyed ourselves.”
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