In Tel Aviv south of Rothschild Boulevard there are very few good places to eat. Here and there you can find an attractive street (Lilienblum, for example, or the Gan Hahashmal area before the start of excavations for the light rail). Residents of Florentin, Jaffa or the Hatikva neighborhood will always find a place to eat near home, but partygoers and gourmands from the center and north of the city usually stay within the boundaries of their own sectors.
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One very popular exception is managing to puncture the above thesis – the Levinsky Market. The wonderful sights and fragrances of spices, baked goods, cheeses and pickled vegetables have always been there, but for the past three to four years the market has been attracting – morning, noon and night, on weekdays and weekends – not only veteran shoppers but new visitors as well. They come en masse for the restaurants, stalls and the small eateries that have opened there since the start of the present decade, virtually all of them based on the market’s abundant produce.
At first it was refreshing, and the offerings are usually tasty even today, but at a certain point it began to feel like “a bit more of the same.” That’s why it was surprising and interesting to discover that recently, a diner called Oggies had opened on one of the market’s streets. Because if the Levinsky Market is an exception on the south Tel Aviv food landscape, Oggies itself is a kind of stepchild.
When you call your place a diner, and certainly when you give it an English name, you are distancing yourself from a market atmosphere in general, and that of Levinsky in particular. And you know what? That’s fine. Because Oggies, despite being an American-style diner, succeeds in preserving a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere, something like a cross between a food stall, bar and small restaurant, which is very well suited to its location.
And what does one eat there? Hamburgers and hot dogs, sandwiches and appetizers, French fries and mac-and-cheese, fried vegetables and sinfully sweet dishes, all served on paper or metal trays.
A portion of buffalo wings (28 shekels, or $7.23) was served alongside a blue cheese dip. Personally I’m not crazy about wings, which I view as mainly something nice to play around with (like artichokes and black sunflower seeds), but Oggies’ version does the job. The wings were fried in a spicy batter that scorched the gullet somewhat, and the taste was reminiscent of familiar home fries. The blue cheese moderated it to some extent, but also burdened it with another type of spiciness. Lovers of the genre will enjoy the dish.
Before ordering French fries (17 shekels) I asked suspiciously – prepared in advance to be disappointed – whether they were cut from fresh potatoes. This column is far removed from culinary snobbism, but I’ve had it with the local French fries, most of which come in bags from the freezer. That’s why I was pleased with the answer I got – which was repeated regarding other options on the menu: “We prepare them ourselves.”
As a fairly trivial result, the French fries were simple and good. The truth is that in light of most of the urban alternatives, they were excellent. Crisp and brown on the outside, soft and yellowish inside, with a nice accompaniment of non-aggressive ketchup and barbecue sauces, which – you guessed it – are also prepared on the premises.
The Oggies hamburger is served in a version known in America as a “slider” – a small hamburger (70 grams) in a miniature roll (26/35/46 shekels for one, two or three burgers, respectively) – which enables you to treat it as a main dish or an accompanying snack or appetizer. For Tel Aviv hamburgers the standard roll today is a soft, sweet brioche. When it’s fresh and at its best, as in this case, it’s an option that’s far more fun than a classic roll. The hamburger, with a small square of cheddar cheese on top, was very good – high quality, juicy, somewhat fatty, with a meaty flavor and without a drop of unnecessary seasoning.
The hot dog (22 shekels) comes in three versions (with a cooked cabbage and apple combination, chili con carne and melted cheese, or guacamole). An advance recommendation sent us to the frankfurters (46 shekels) – 5 cocktail franks on a bed of red cabbage cooked in beer, along with a salad of potatoes and bacon, pickled vegetables and a roll made from potato flour, baked on the premises.
The little franks were very good, with a delicate spicy flavor and a properly crisp outer layer; the cabbage in beer was sweet-and-sour, with an aroma and flavor that reinforced the meat; the bacon and potato salad added a welcome saltiness. Only the roll was a disappointment: It had been overheated and was hard on the outside and somewhat dry on the inside. We managed without it.
We left Oggies very satisfied. Even if they don’t offer anything you can’t find elsewhere, they do it well. It’s enjoyable and inexpensive, and they manage to add a different and refreshing touch to an area that was somewhat in need of it. A stepchild? Maybe we’ll amend that to “a cool and charming cousin from America.”
Oggies. 4 Merhavia, Tel Aviv. (03) 516-8244. Open weekdays from 5 P.M.-2 A.M. Fridays from 10 A.M.-4 P.M.