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Nate's Pastrami Tacos

When I accepted the invitation from Rose to plant a small vineyard in the Willowbrook Community Garden, I was without a car. Living in Koreatown, as I still do, I’d have to take public transportation to the Garden, some 14 miles, and a world, away. I’d leave my apartment before dawn each day, take the Red or Purple line, then the 710 bus, which runs down the 110 freeway. From the bus, I would watch the sun rise over the distant Whittier Narrows. I would then take another train, the Green line, which would let me off at the Watts-Avalon Station.

From there, I’d walk the 10 minutes or so to the Garden, passing other early risers on their way to work or school, as well as those who’d been up all night, or were still asleep under a pile of blankets. I’d walk past a drug rehab center, a pot dispensary, a church, and a business selling funerary urns and other church paraphernalia on layaway.

And then there was Bernard’s Burgers. At this time of the day, it had yet to open. Rose had introduced me to its owner, Nate Murray, when she first gave me a tour of the neighborhood, which included vegetable and herb farms held by a diverse collection of gardeners and farmers, stretching out north as far as the eye could see under the high-tension wires that passed overhead.

I was often Nate’s first customer of the day, putting in for a pastrami taco after a morning’s work in the garden, where I was preparing the ground to plant the vineyard. As the grill warmed up, Nate and I would talk. I was named after a Nathan, I told him, my paternal grandfather in Brooklyn, whom I never met.

“Like the hot dog stand,” he tells me. I nod. I remember those hot dog stands, the one on Coney Island, not far from where my father grew up in Bedford -Stuyvesant, a neighborhood that has changed more than once since he was there, and is now, from what I hear, fashionable.

“How do you want your taco,” he then asks. “Everything?”

It was at Bernard’s that I was first introduced to the pastrami taco. Tender slices of pastrami arrayed on a cushion of home-made chili, sprinkled with cheese, then folded into a still-pliable, deep-fried corn tortilla and topped with lettuce and fresh tomatoes from his own organic garden. Was it manageable for a man with two average-sized hands? In a word, no. Pre-Covid, I’d warn nearby diners to maintain a distance of six feet from me, for their own good, lest they too be splattered as I consumed the sublime confection.

Bernard’s was the only independently owned place in the neighborhood where you could sit down for a meal, and it was here that I would pick up on some of what was going on in the community. People would sit around the u-shaped counter that enclosed the kitchen where Nate worked, and there would often be lively discussions.

The problem with the Dodgers was that they didn’t have any Black players, and the one they did have, the manager Dave Roberts, was not a good manager (this before they won the World Series under Roberts’ much-praised management). Bernard’s was also where I first heard the name Nipsy Hustle. It was the morning after he’d been gunned down in the nearby Slauson neighborhood. And it was where I learned the reason that the pigeon racing club in Vermont Knolls had been shut down, because of the possible spread of Newcastle disease, which Nate blamed on the fighting chickens that had been smuggled in from Texas.

Covid would be the end of Bernard’s Burgers. Nate sold the place and retired with his wife to Oklahoma, where his mother lives. The place is now going through a renovation, though it hasn’t reopened yet. It’s been painted aquamarine and there are hand-written signs advertising tacos and burritos.

I look forward to stopping in when they do open. After a morning in the vineyard, I’ll order the pastrami taco, if they have one, and warn my fellow diners, for their own sake, to stay six feet away.


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