Something bad usually happens to veteran Israeli street foods – falafel, shawarma, sabih, etc. – when they find themselves uprooted from simple street stalls and eateries, and are served instead in large, modern places. For a moment, set aside those clichés about “the loss of magic” and issues about price or value for money. No, it’s the clunky complexity that spoils everything: paying in advance at the cash register; coming with or without a receipt to the display window; ordering; waiting. Somehow, even the food ends up being less tasty ultimately.
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That’s why the branch of Falafel Gabay at the northern end of Dizengoff Street, near Tel Aviv Port, was always my personal favorite for several years. Mainly because it was the exception to the rule described above: A classic falafel joint, in terms of food and attitude, but spacious, pleasant and with several original ideas on the menu. Lots of fried vegetables in pita in the summer and a selection of popular soups in the winter – a successful blend of old and new. Just the kind of place you’re happy to have in the neighborhood, close enough to walk to in flip-flops.
Recently, I’ve eaten two or three times at the Bograshov Street branch, the older of the two, and had an entirely different feeling – far more akin to those assembly-line falafel places. More crowded, less inviting for leisurely eating, rather chaotic, less just-freshly-made. Probably the location and season contribute to that – the street, in central Tel Aviv, is full of people on the way to or from the beach. But I was interested in seeing whether the Dizengoff branch at least has managed to stay the way I remembered it.
Its setting is already preferable. Although it’s located in one of the most crowded areas for eateries in town – cafés, Papa John’s Pizza, Totuma, the Nam Restaurant – you don’t notice that. You can eat inside, with air-conditioning, or outside, where you’ll find a lot of space and shade next to the wide sidewalk. The salad bar is fresh and clean (have you noticed that cleanliness, or lack of it, is an adjective that applies only to popularly priced food?), with all the standard fare. However, it did lack fried strips of pita – the unofficial heroin of falafel and shawarma joints, which always make you believe you’ll suffice with “just the one, maybe two.” This time, thankfully, I was denied that self-delusion.
Fresh and piping hot
The portion of falafel (17 shekels – $4.45) was very good. I’ve already expressed my views on the food in the past (in a nutshell: It’s just falafel. As long as it’s fresh, with the proper amount of chickpeas and seasoning that doesn’t try to conceal the rest, it’s great), and Falafel Gabay definitely ranks with the city’s best. The pile of piping-hot falafel balls were fried when you ordered, accompanied by fresh salads, a spicy homemade sauce, and sourish and tasty amba (mango pickle condiment).
An unplanned glimpse at the huge menu hanging on the wall, in traditional style, provided the surprise element of the visit: the Jerusalem mixed grill (me’orav yerushalmi – 35 shekels). A few years ago, at Falafel Gabay and other restaurants, they ran into a kashrut problem due to the internal organs, and my favorite dish was removed from the menu. But now it’s back! Chicken breast, heart, liver and spleen, and lots of fried onions.
In a city where’s it’s quite difficult to find a real Jerusalem mixed grill – the kind that doesn’t omit any of the basic ingredients (several places in the city aren’t ashamed to stir-fry some chicken breast and liver and call it “mixed”) – Falafel Gabay’s version is probably the best of them all. The parts were chopped into small pieces, seared on a sizzling-hot iron surface and seasoned delicately – a little cumin, a little turmeric – filling a pita to bursting. Magnificent!
Along with the mixed grill, I also got a plate of kadurei pele (“wonder balls,” although hipsters might prefer to call them “amazeballs”). This is probably the first and last time I’ll use the word “treat” in this column, but there’s no other way to describe this Gabay speciality. Tiny balls from a mixture of potatoes and eggs, deep-fried and distributed freely to customers to make the question “Do you have French fries?” completely redundant. If they were to sell them by the dozen in a bag, I wouldn’t hesitate. They’re really great – and really addictive.
Before rediscovering my old friend the mixed grill, I actually wanted schnitzel. So before leaving, I decided to have half a portion (17 shekels). A few portions of medium thickness, with a crisp coating of bread crumbs and accompanied by all the fresh offerings at the salad bar.
If this were a soccer commentary, the schnitzel would be summed up by the phrase “It does the job.” The truth? That’s exactly what you can say about Falafel Gabay. It does the job. A terrific job.