Ha'ahim
Ha'ahim: Before you enter, forget everything you thought you knew about grill bars. Photo by Rotem Maimon
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Moti Milrod
An Independence Day barbecue at Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, April 26, 2012. Photo by Moti Milrod

The very thought of Independence Day evokes the smell of barbecues, and the most likely thing to go on a barbecue is a kebab. These are the ultimate meat patties, which require no more than high-quality minced meat, chopped onions, some spices and, of course, someone to operate the grill. Each community has its own preferences – Jews from Romania add a lot of garlic, Bulgarians tend to like their kebabs fatty, and Jews from the Middle East typically throw in parsley and cumin. Many other versions vie for the title of best kebab in town.

The origins of the kebab lie in African and Asian cuisine, and its round shape and name come from the Ottomans. Within Tel Aviv and Jaffa, it is Jaffa that can boast the best treasure trove of kebabs, featuring a great mix of Arab, Bulgarian and Romanian options at cheap prices. Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter, and its Middle Eastern-style kebabs, follows closely on Jaffa's heels. Below are some of the top kebab spots in Tel Aviv and Jaffa:

Chef pick: Lamb kebab in a pita

The restaurant: Abraxas Tzafon, run by television chef Eyal Shani and his business partner Shahar Segal, offers an easygoing and unpretentious menu that dignifies the diners as well as the raw products used in preparing the dishes. Those who want to taste Shani’s food but are not keen on crowded and rushed snack bars or on culinary adventures at home can try out some of his popular, basic, much-loved dishes here. This is one of the first restaurants that dared to offer kebab in a pita, but make no mistake – this is no ordinary kebab and no ordinary pita. Located at 40 Lilienblum St., Tel Aviv.

The winner: There are two kebab dishes at Tzfon Abraxas, one served on a skewer and the other in a pita. Both are prepared from the same cuts in the same manner, but they do differ, and each one is delicious in its own right. We succumbed to the kebab in the pita. Shani believes the meat should be the main attraction, so the kebab is prepared only from the best cut – a flat cut with a layer of hand-minced lamb fat with a touch of black pepper. The use of the right meat, seared over hot coals for just the right amount of time and served in pita that's baked on the premises, along with a modest addition of parsley, mint, onion and lemon, make this the best kebab in town. After the first bite, you might have to stop and wonders if a kebab really can taste this good. It can.

The price: NIS 66

Neighborhood pick: Kebab skewers

The restaurant: Throughout the Hatikva quarter, the debate rages over where the best kebab can be found. In a neighborhood specializing in grilled skewered meat, the answer is not easy to come by.  However, our pick is Shaul’s Restaurant, established in 1951. Located at 15 Hamevaser St., Tel Aviv.

The winner: Beef kebab on a skewer. Despite the wide variety of choices here, the beef kebab is still the indisputable winner. It is made using a secret recipe that has been handed down for three generations – no small matter. It’s a bit greasy, spiced with onions, salt and pepper, and balances between the basic flavors and the rich ones. The secret lies in the precise manner of preparation: singed just a bit on the outside, soft and well-done on the inside. The reasonable price and accompanying salads make this a most desirable venture. Anyway, when was the last time you paid a visit to Hatikva?

Price: NIS 18 per skewer, including salads.

Downtown pick: Kebab on a plate

The restaurant: It’s well known that central Tel Aviv does not offer many grill bars with reputable meat. This is one of the reasons that the owners of the city's Carpaccio Bar, the brothers Yotam and Assaf Doctor, opened a grill bar in central Tel Aviv two years ago, which they call a bar with a twist. Before you enter Ha'ahim Restaurant, forget everything you thought you knew about grill bars. Located at 12 Ibn Gvirol St., Tel Aviv.

The winner: Kebab skewer on a plate. This is one of the most fun dishes we discovered on our journey. This kebab draws its inspiration from the Arab model, so before diving in, stop and smell the dish. There is a pleasant aroma, a mixture of fire and coals together with cinnamon and cardamom, that comes from the baharat spice mixture and is almost enough to fill you up on its own. Then there's the meat itself, mainly veal with some mutton, minced in exactly the right proportions. A bit of parsley helps as well. The inviting smell does not mislead the palate. At lunchtime, this kebab is one of the most rewarding meals in town.

The price: NIS 33 per skewer on a plate; NIS 43 per skewer served as part of a business lunch, along with a hot main dish and two small sides.

Jaffa pick: Rolled up in dough

The restaurant: Anyone wandering the streets of Jaffa cannot miss Haj Kahlil. Everywhere you look you see the name. The clock tower plaza alone has two different outlets. One is a chef’s restaurant run by Omar Ilwan, who brings authentic Galilee flavors, with creative and updated interpretations, to Jaffa. Not that cheap, but always surprising. Located at 18 Raziel St., Jaffa.

The winner: Halabi kebab. One cannot ignore the curious presentation: under a layer of fragrant baked dough lie six elongated kebabs, very dense and packed with pine nuts, giving off a mild fragrance of mutton fat and spices that makes your mouth water. These kebabs are first grilled and then placed on a plate covered in spicy tomato sauce, along with grilled tomatoes and onions. All this gets rolled up in dough and baked in an oven. The resulting dish is perfect for people who like sharp, dominant flavors. Our suggestion: break off a piece of pita, dip it in the sauce, and wrap it around the kebab - a true delight.

The price: NIS 70

Fish pick: Taste of the Mediterranean

The restaurant: Hashaked was established in 1964 and became the choice of merchants in the wholesale market, a place where they could get fresh fish, salads, bread and alcoholic beverages. The market is no longer there, but the restaurant is alive and well. Despite the simple decor and proletarian appeal, it’s considered one of Tel Aviv’s best seafood restaurants. Located at 80 Hashmonaim St., Tel Aviv.

The winner: Grouper and corvine kebab. If you’ve had enough of lamb, beef or mutton but still crave a kebab, you’ve come to the right place, since this is the most refreshing kebab we’ve encountered. As with meat kebabs, freshness is of the essence, as is the amount of searing, since no one likes a dry patty. The pleasant blend of grouper and corvine, spiced with parsley, onion, a bit of garlic and high-quality olive oil, has a real Mediterranean flavor and gives off a good taste of the sea. On the side you get yogurt and lemon sauce, spiced with garlic and sage, which makes this Tel Aviv restaurant feel a bit like a Greek tavern.

The price: NIS 98, including a large salad plate with refills.