Los Gatos bakery gets its kosher seal of approval

It's Friday afternoon and Shabbat is coming.

The yeasty aroma of just-baked bread perfumes a storefront in a nondescript Los Gatos strip mall.

For locals in the know, Mama's Bakery, located at 473 Santa Cruz Ave., is the place to pick up a couple of challah for Shabbat dinner.

And for those who keep a kosher home, it's the only place.

In a region where certified kosher restaurants and specialty shops are few and far between, Mama's Bakery is a welcome oasis.

It's a clean, well-lighted place, though there's not much room to sit down. Behind the glass counter, more cookies, pastries, cakes and breads tempt the hungry and the curious. Serving as a centerpiece at the single outdoor table is a clutch of cookies in a little plastic container wrapped in festive red ribbons.

Yet the most striking feature in Mama's Bakery is the smiling man behind the counter. He greets everyone, proudly displaying his wares, all of which he made himself by hand.

He is Abrahim Shemirani, a master baker and proprietor of the only kosher bakery in the Los Gatos area.

Earlier this year, Va'ad Hakashrus of Northern California, a regional kashrut certifying agency, kashered the bakery, certifying products kosher, parve and pas Yisrael (baked by Jews).

Now, reports Shemirani, business has never been better.

It's a happy ending for the hard-working Shemirani, 57, a native of Iran who claims he was "born in my father's Tehran bakery."

In fact, he says he can't ever remember a time when he wasn't surrounded by mixing bowls of rising dough, hot ovens and the perfect smell of warm bread.

"In Tehran, my father made challah for the whole Jewish community," recalls Shemirani, who apprenticed for his father for many years, all the while accepting no salary, as is the Iranian custom.

One of 18 siblings, Shemirani stayed in the family business and became a master baker himself. However, he and his wife, Minoo, left Iran in 1976, hoping for a better life in the United States.

They moved first to Los Angeles, where they lived and worked for many years serving the city's large Iranian immigrant community.

Like so many native-born Angelenos, the Shemiranis finally had had enough of the L.A. smog and traffic, and decided to head north to the Los Gatos area.

"We loved it here right away," says Shemirani in his thick Farsi accent. "The weather is very good all year round. We raised our boys here."

He opened Mama's Bakery in 1998, drawing on his storehouse of classic Persian and regional Jewish recipes for breads, cookies, cakes and other treats.

However, one thing was missing. Though he had always used strictly kosher ingredients in his baked goods, Shemirani's Los Gatos store was not actually certified kosher, and thus was off-limits to many observant Jews in the area.

"A customer came in and said to me, 'I wish I could, but I can't buy from you,'" recalls Shemirani. "I met with local rabbis and asked them what I needed to do."

When the kosher authorities showed up, they recited the proper brachot, ordered some new kitchen equipment, blowtorched the ovens and scrubbed the shop from top to bottom.

Now Shemirani says anyone can come in and partake of his handmade traditional breads, pastries, cookies and doughnuts. He even makes his own non-dairy ice cream.

Shemirani isn't counting on chance to bring in customers. He's often out beating the pavement, introducing himself at local oneg Shabbats.

That's how Elizabeth Klien of San Jose ran into him.

"Abrahim came to my shul, Am Echad in San Jose," she recalls. "He's a delightful man, and you can tell he cares about what he does. And I love his challah; it's as good as mine!"

Shemirani's many siblings have also left Iran, with some settling in such far-flung locales as Germany, Britain, Canada and across the United States.

He and his family have made a real home for themselves in this area. His three sons are all-American boys, though none have shown any interest in getting their hands floury.

"They're all computer people," he says with a shrug.

But as always, he's all smiles. "Everybody comes in here and talks to me and helps me," he says. "The people are very friendly."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.