The end-of-year summaries are over, and in any case this column doesn’t usually make them – we’d rather eat instead – but if there was one pleasing mini-trend that is worth noting, it’s the ostensible return of shawarma. If in the middle of the last decade, Tel Aviv was full of dozens of shawarma joints, most of which closed pretty quickly, fans of this popular delicacy, frequently called the “queen of the street food,” have lately encountered some new eateries that are making successful attempts to return the dish to its glory days. These include the Mutfak and Babacim Turkish restaurants, and the quasi-Greek Pitos.
This is all good. In fact it’s very good – but it’s not enough. If it's to be a true revival we need to talk about what is called “Israeli” shawarma. True shawarma connoisseurs tend to wrinkle their noses when confronted with a skewer of turkey meat, but even they will have to admit that during a time of distress or mere craving, this is the (relatively) lightest, most available and popular solution. Two new places have given us the opportunity to examine the possibility of a shawarma comeback.
Mifgash Habracha (65 Hakishon St., Tel Aviv) is the type of place that rarely opens in the city anymore, mainly because it looks and acts as if it has been here for at least 20 or 30 years. Who calls themselves by such a name anymore, unless it’s trying to hint at pseudo authenticity? Who makes do with a simple sign, with no “brand,” no website and no Facebook page?
This welcome minimalism continues inside, with (turkey) shawarma and schnitzel. The shawarma ranges from 34 to 45 shekels ($9.20 to $12.15); the schnitzel sells for 25 to 35 shekels, depending on whether it’s served in a pita, lafa or baguette, or on a plate. And that’s it.
Shawarma isn’t at all cheap, for its vendors or its consumers, but I’m happy to say that the portions sold at Mifgash go for somewhat less than the average in Tel Aviv. Take an uncharacteristically generous portion of sliced meat (I ordered it in pita, for 34 shekels), and add to it a counter full of pickles, fried eggplant and grilled hot peppers to be sampled freely, plus classic, fresh, oil-drenched (and addictive) french fries – and you get why this place quickly became a hit among the residents and workers in the Florentine neighborhood (including several employees of Haaretz, whose offices are nearby).
The retro continues with the turkey meat on the rotating spit, which is huge and coarse in texture, with thick pieces sliced off in a manner that is uncharacteristic of our times – not with some cutting robot, not even with an electric slicer, but with a regular knife by the guy at the counter. The result is uneven meat chunks that are far different from the thin shavings we get elsewhere. The use of the wrong spices (whether too weak or too aggressive) or dry spots on the meat can easily ruin such shawarma, but fortunately that doesn’t happen here. This one doesn’t taste much different from any other turkey shawarma, but one does recognize the cautious use of cumin and turmeric, which makes this shawarma no less tempting, but much less yellowish and phosphorescent.
A small jump to the center-of-the-center of Tel Aviv and the price for shawarma in pita jumps 10 percent: 38 shekels at Nurman (96 Hahashmonaim St.), whose location under the Gindi Towers left it no alternative but to put on a more sophisticated, modern face. Once – okay, 10 years ago – a place like this would have been called a “high-tech shawarma joint,” but today it is now the standard and it’s places like Mifgash Habracha that are considered a sensation.
There are two shawarma rotisseries here, with veal/lamb or turkey meat (you can mix them if you like), and a spanking-clean glass case in front of them containing a more than ample selection of toppings: two types of hot pepper (red and green), pickled lemons, pepper spread and the other usual suspects in this genre.
The turkey shawarma was reasonable. Very thin pieces that were a little less juicy than one might expect (the requisite dome of fat on top was already shrunken when we arrived; while it’s correct to give customers a piece of it if they ask, one must remember that it has a role to play here). The seasoning was the type you find in other places. No complaints, but no special praise here, either.
The second spit was more successful. The shawarma was dark, soft and juicier – and naturally and understandably less seasoned. I know plenty of people who love meat but still avoid lamb because of its dominant taste that remains long after it’s eaten. That doesn’t happen here, because the lamb mostly takes the form of fat, while the meat itself is decent veal. Forgetting the hummus-tahini option and taking advantage of an unexpected addition of pickled (and sharp) lemon created a portion of shawarma that was relatively original and refreshing.
In both cases there was nothing sensational. But you know what? We weren’t looking for that. We’d be happy with a few other options like these. If Mifgash Habracha and Nurman survive 2019, we could officially declare that shawarma is back. We hope it won’t ever abandon us again.
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