This column visits restaurants, food stalls and dishes that have become legendary, and tests them in the crucible of time elapsed since they acquired that status. Are they still what they were, or have they become a pale shadow of their glorious past? This time we’re at Itzik and Ruthie’s sandwich place on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.
In 2016, an event occurred that changed human history for all time. Bigger than Donald Trump’s victory, more important than the retirement of Kobe Bryant: The Michelin Guide awarded a star for the first time ever to two street food stalls, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. Both in Singapore, they became symbols of the sea change in the food universe. Not only the masses but the top chefs and the most prestigious guides started to revere and visit street food stalls. Every chef or stall owner wants to be street-food simple, but with a twist. But street food was getting Michelin stars precisely for not having a twist. Can the revolution that began four years ago be fomented in Israel, too, in the form of a historic Michelin star?
Itzik and Ruthie’s Sandwich, as the tiny place is called, has been acclaimed by the most annoying type of Tel Aviv folks for the past 63 years. With the acclaim come all the idiosyncrasies of the place: utterly plain rolls, weird to nutty opening hours, a menu limited to meager offerings and prices that aren’t cheap (15 shekels – $4.30 – for a small sandwich). The enthusiasts of the place flood the web with recommendations and ardent reviews, glowing articles and above all, plenty of wearisome glorification. Otherwise, how to explain logically a citywide enthusiasm over egg salad? These are the most irritating Tel Avivans that exist, and not because they can’t stop gloating over the simplest of foods – the sandwich. No: They’re irritating because they’re right.
I betook myself to the Spartan sandwich stall on Sheinkin. “You’re seven decades late,” the Ruthie and Itzik’s son, Dudi, teased when I declared that this was my maiden visit to the place. The proprietors’ conversation made it clear that they were nearing the end of their day, not long after the start of mine. Am I supposed to enthuse over that? I won’t utter a word of encouragement to people who get up at outlandish hours and make the rest of us feel feeble.
Two sandwiches landed in my hands. Simple in appearance and ready for me to pull the rug out from under the lunatic legend.
But with the first bite, I too joined the Itzik and Ruthie cult. It became clear why the type of bread makes no difference, why the fact that they don’t take credit cards is immaterial and why even the smilingly cynical barbs of those serving are inconsequential. People come here to eat sandwiches, but return for the salads. Here, in the salads, lies the justification for the scandalous hour at which the owners get up (around 1 A.M.). The mythic egg salad is indeed the densest and tastiest that could be spawned from the unsexiest word combo in history: “egg salad.” Together with a sweetish, oily, tart carrot salad, it merges into a flavor-laden salad concoction rounded off with tomato, cucumber, pickle and a shot of lettuce. Perfect it is.
The second sandwich contained the most delicate eggplant salad you will ever taste: A rare combination of cubes of eggplant, solid but melting into the sesame roll. A cheese salad negotiates an exchange of flavors with the eggplant that renders both juicy. In both sandwiches, dill and garlic glitter. They are what imbue the salads with their fresh but biting clout, and in them lies the eternal strength of this sandwich place.
The salads are prepared from scratch every day, and include precise seasoning that sets an impeccable standard of quality. These superb salads are a rare combination of a simple salad with Eastern European seasoning – dating back to Israel’s birth – with a Jewish fusion most vividly expressed by eggplant cubes meeting sour cream. Here we find the singular historical status of this tattered sandwich stall.
The Singapore food stalls told us something about street food culture in the Far East. Long lines, simple food meticulously prepared and an interesting story about migration and a change in direction of the world of food. All these elements, together with an all-Israeli salad that is a distinctive product of this slice of landscape exist in Itzik and Ruthie’s sandwich. After more than 70 years of failed pursuit of a first Michelin star for Israel, maybe it’s lurking in this simplest and most magnificent place. Precisely at the point where then meets now.
“Another four years and the place will retire,” the son told me before I left. Because of the early hour for me (and the late one for them) it took me a bit of time to understand: the Israeli food shrine is liable to close down soon. How I hate to see Tel Aviv folks who are in the right.
Itzik and Ruthie’s, 53 Sheinkin Street, Tel Aviv, Sun-Thu 04.00-11.30