Chef salad with griilled tofu. - Photos by Jamie Lusch

MacLevin's: Jacksonville's natural hole in the wall

While their Jacksonville eatery attempts to be many things to as many people as possible, it's always been about the way Jeffrey and Penelope Levin like to cook and eat, as well as what they can conscience and what they cannot. Starting with high-quality ingredients and from-scratch preparations, the couple serve an "eclectic" menu of "natural" foods.

"We've always had gardens, and we've always grown organic food," says Jeffrey, 70. "We know where these things come from."

"The one thing we decided not to do was cheat," says Penelope, 68.

In West Covina, Calif., where they raised four sons, the couple maintained an uncompromising stance to food. Longtime vegetarians, they patronized only organic restaurants. At home, they manufactured pizza crusts, "veggie pies," chili and soups to sell frozen at health-food stores. By turns, they operated an organic catering business and a grocery cooperative that served about 250 families.

But the Levins grew weary of air pollution and other unhealthy facets of life in Los Angeles.

"Everything started to turn to plastic in our world," says Penelope.

Finding respite at California's Big Bear Lake in summer 1998, Penelope was inspired by a "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant and started conceiving a similar endeavor. Loathe to return home, the Levins paid a long overdue visit to a friend in Jacksonville and almost immediately decided to leave California.

"Up here, it's like you get to make more choices," says Penelope.

The Levins easily found a suitable house in Jacksonville, as well as a hole in the wall on California Street for their restaurant. Although Penelope initially doubted the small kitchen could accommodate grand plans for cooking and baking, the Levins started serving their own brand of breakfast and lunch in November 1998, about a month after moving to Jacksonville.

"Our food is unique," says Jeffrey.

Favoring the Jewish dishes of Jeffrey's childhood, the Levins dedicated a portion of their menu to traditional specialties: bagels, lox, latkes, pastrami, chicken livers, matzoh pancakes, rye and challah breads. While ingredients are not kosher by definition, MacLevin's adheres to the Jewish prohibition of pork and shellfish. Their bacon is actually turkey; sausage comes in turkey, beef or "veggie" versions.

The ethic attracts some customers otherwise unaware of MacLevin's, but it holds others at bay.

"I could give you some very funny stories and some horror stories," says Penelope.

Perhaps equally misconstrued is the "whole-foods" aspect of MacLevin's identity. The couple admittedly affixed the term to their business long before it was widely associated with healthful eating. They have since modified the moniker to simply "eatery," but original website verbiage and telephone listings still confuse the issue.

"They thought we were like a co-op or something," says Jeffrey.

The Levins sidestep stereotypes by proudly proclaiming their "unconventional" nature. Yet MacLevin's continuously evolves to accommodate dietary trends and customer preferences.

"Gluten-free is probably the new, wealthy way to eat," says Penelope, referring to the proliferation of specialty products.

A number of MacLevin's dishes — soups, salads, frittatas and meats — already were gluten-free. Some, such as latkes and fish and chips, just needed a bit of tweaking to make them digestible for customers with celiac disease and appealing to anyone curtailing wheat consumption.

"We don't use bases for anything; all of your bases have wheat in them," says Penelope.

The Levins added a waffle iron dedicated to gluten-free waffles, a toaster just for gluten-free bread and conscientiously clean the grill so gluten-free pancakes don't commingle with standard ones. Batters are house-made, but bread is purchased because to bake its own, MacLevin's would need a dedicated oven, which simply wouldn't fit in the cramped kitchen. Substituting gluten-free bread adds 50 cents to an item's regular price.

Costs for organic — so long a stumbling block — became affordable last summer, and organic greens, coleslaw, potato salad, latkes, carrot-raisin salad and house-made carrot juice followed with only modest price increases. Sourcing organic ingredients locally with assistance from Food 4 Less and Ashland Food Co-op helps keep MacLevin's prices down in winter, says Jeffrey, while new relationships with local farms, including Applegate's Earth and Sky farm, pay off in summer.

"It's becoming easier the more entrenched we become here," says Penelope.

"We finally came up with a formula," adds Jeffrey.

Last fall, the couple procured natural, grass-fed beef from Jacksonville's Salant Family Ranch for MacLevin's burgers. Although not locally raised, natural beef also is the basis of MacLevin's house-smoked pastrami and house-brined corned beef, the latter used in quintessential Reuben sandwiches. Both meats can be purchased by the pound.

"There is no deli like us in the valley," says Jeffrey.

And it's the rare restaurant that so eagerly shares family traditions with clientele. MacLevin's hosts a Hanukkah feast every winter and Passover Seder, Jews' most important holiday, every spring. This year's event is planned for 5:30 p.m. April 20; reservations required.

The five-course meal features fish, roast beef or chicken and kugel, a casserole-like dish. The traditional four cups of wine are included in the $40 price per person (half price for children 10 and younger). Matzoh, or unleavened bread, from Israel is the last thing diners consume.

Presiding over the festivities, Jeffrey reads from the Haggadah, the Seder's ceremonial script and story of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. Singing and chanting that lasts for several hours would cause passersby to wonder whether guests — bringing diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and religious beliefs to the table — actually are one large, boisterous family.

"This is our living room," says Penelope.

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