The industrial and auto-repair districts of Tel Aviv – the ones remaining after others were grabbed by developers for the construction of dazzling high-rises – always contain an element of expectation. You’re already there, maybe stuck there for a while or working nearby, and somehow you’re hungry. Despite the soot, concrete, crates, piles of tires and grease, and, in truth, perhaps because of all this? The entire scene screams out for a hole-in-the-wall, semi-permanent food stand, encountered by chance but producing something that will astound you sufficiently to make you wait for the next time you blow a tire. It’s almost redundant to note that these expectations usually founder on some run-of-the-mill joint, at best.
That would probably be the last thing one could say about the Raj Mahal, an Indian food-stand-restaurant (the name is a giveaway) that recently opened in the auto-repair shop and office district around Yad Harutzim Street in Tel Aviv. The place broadcasts simplicity bordering on being pathetic, consisting of a small shack, with a few pictures on the wall and plastic chairs and tables that don’t even pretend to display uniformity. There is even a chance that any thought of eating here, especially Indian food with all its attendant associations, will quickly dissipate. However, do hold that thought, don’t let it escape, don’t give in to your instincts. It’s worth it.
I’d tend to write about the Raj Mahal as a “workers’ restaurant”, but it would be more accurate to call it a one-man-show. It’s all run by one man called Raz, who came here from India a few years ago. Until he gets the help he needs (“I’m looking”, he says), he’s the one making recommendations, cooking, grilling, baking, putting it all together before serving, cleaning and collecting payment. Even impatient customers are somewhat amazed. Nevertheless, the pressure does impose (on us as well as him) limited menu options for lunch, such as a thali platter with beef and chicken dishes (45-50 shekels, or $13-$14), with only a few first courses. In less-busy times of the day you can also find biryani dishes, salads and several types of meat on skewers, ranging in price from 20 to 70 shekels.
There are several Indian restaurants and food-stands across Tel Aviv – large and small, classic and modern, authentic and more made-up – most of which are viewed with great affection by fans of this genre. It’s obvious which side of the scale Raj Mahal leans toward, but it has one tie-breaking advantage over other Tel Aviv venues, one which possibly could only exist in this part of town: a charcoal-fed tabun oven. Its walls are made of bricks and it has an iron lid, with Raz introducing puffed-up circles of dough into it, before quickly removing them and smearing them with a mixture of spices (including garlic and chili, which you can ask to leave out), baking into the perfect nan bread. But wait, that’s not all: the tabun also serves for grilling meat and chicken – Raz sticks them in perpendicularly. This gives them an aroma and flavors you’d be hard put to find anywhere else that sells Indian food. The final look, grilled and hanging on a metal bar, is unbeatable.
I took the only lunch option that included the above – a chicken tikka thali (50 shekels) along with two samosas (22 shekels) and onion bhaji, an onion fritter (20 shekels for four pieces). The fried dishes, despite the fact that they’d been fried in advance and reheated, were very pleasant - a crispy but juicy onion patty, a samosa with a hard edge and soft and delicious interior, made of potatoes and vegetables, with mustard seeds and cilantro giving the dominant flavors. I don’t know who defined the degree of spiciness as the index of authenticity of a food stand, but since this has long been the case, I have to toe the line: the accompanying sauces, the green and red chutneys (there’s also tamarind) are not only among the spiciest I’ve ever had but they’re among the tastiest.
The thali plate was more than reasonable. It contained a thin tasty cracker, a good portion of white rice, three dal or vegetables dishes which, although not differing much from one another, were very tasty. They were thick and rich rather than being runny, with large and small pieces of potatoes, zucchinis, and more, blending in well with the rice and gravies. Anyone desiring a vegan dish will enjoy a totally satisfying meal. However, the standout dish was the chicken tikka. Reddish pieces of juicy chicken soaked in spices, smoked in the tabun, simply amazing. The only thing marring the experience for me was the fact that there was no double or triple-size dish of the same. I wish I could have wrapped more and more pieces in the sizzling nan bread, dipping it the searing chutney, eating it till I had my fill. The thali deal is an original and good idea for a business lunch, but the thing is to find the right timing and come for the grilled dishes on offer, which include kebab and other tikka dishes.
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Raj Mahal, it seems, has already made a name for itself among the people working in its vicinity. They come in droves from nearby air-conditioned offices to enjoy a blazing lunch here. If you’re not within range, come without a good reason. Or, at worst, fake some problem with your alternator or something. It’s unfair that only they enjoy this.
Raj Mahal, 21 Rival Street, Tel. 052-5413783
Open: 7 days a week, 12:00-22:00