There’s always something happening at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market. More and more food stalls are opening, most of them replacing “classic” market stands of fruits and vegetables, CDs, notions, etc., and attracting quite a number of people who want first of all to eat and afterward maybe to buy something.
Is that a good thing? It’s hard to say. Some of said stalls aren’t really a part of the natural atmosphere; they’re just trying to hitch a ride on some imaginary “authenticity” offered by the market. Others do so with an elegance that justifies their location there.
In any case, the market’s central thoroughfare is already about to burst with the numerous stalls and crowds of people trying to carve a path for themselves through it. So, whether or not there’s any connection, the most interesting thing happening in the area over the past year is what’s taking place in the “backyard” of the market, where it borders the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood to the west.
For decades there have been small restaurants in its alleyways – usually offering hummus, soups, skewers and cooked dishes. But now a walk along Yom Tov Street, parallel to the market, reveals bars, restaurants and newer food stalls, which create a scene of their own. These eateries are filled with a (mainly) young crowd of gourmands and people out to have a good time, who flood the street in the evenings and on Friday afternoons.
For example, it’s hard to ignore the line and the hubbub around the Pop-up Panda stall (17 Yom Tov, corner of Havshush Street). I’ve passed by it on several Fridays – the only day it’s open – and this time I decided to stop in. The small stall operates out of a building that looks like a warehouse, looking almost like “a hole in the wall” as people like to say. Inside, three or four young people are crowded together, with panda-themed baseball caps and an attitude copied from Eyal Shani’s fast-food Miznon chain: in other words, shouting and excitement. Before them are fresh vegetables and herbs, colorful sauces and steamers containing pita bread and two types of cooked dishes: “eggplant fillet” (caramelized eggplant) and “sloppy panda” (a chunk of lamb flank). In principle there is also ceviche, but by the time I got there they had run out of it.
I ordered the “sloppy” (35 shekels). There’s some waiting time, but behind all the pretense of fun, the pop-up staff works efficiently, in a way you won’t see in many stalls in the city. One young woman takes orders, writes down exactly who ordered what, and instructs those who prepare the food, in order, without mistakes and chaos. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The situation in other places proves otherwise.
The pita, which is of average size, is filled with salad (parsley, tomatoes, some onion, a little spicy pepper), tahini, beet chutney and cooked meat. And it’s excellent – a wonderful meal in a pita. The salad is fresh, sour-spicy as expected, the tahini and beet sauce add some necessary liquid and slightly sweet thickness, and on top of all that the lamb dish is exciting – golden, juicy, meaty, fatty golden slivers, well spiced. The combination is something that’s not exactly sloppy, but kind of a fine Greek gyro. Great fun.
I decided not to stop at the adjacent stall – or to be more precise, concrete railing – next to which stood a guy with two pots who was selling portions of cholent, meat or vegan. Instead I continued a few meters south. In the area that’s home to butcher shops and fishmongers, a new stall has opened in recent weeks, Fish & Chips Market (7 Yom Tov). It operates alongside Eli’s Fish, which if I understood correctly belongs to the same owner. In effect, that makes it the sea version of the popular M25 market restaurant not far from there, at 30 Hacarmel Street. At M25 they take meat from the nearby Meatmarket butcher shop and put it on the grill. At Fish & Chips Market they fillet several of the varieties of fresh fish sold next door, coat them and deep-fry them.
Actually, that’s how market stalls are run all over the world (and there aren’t enough of this type here).
The stall offers several classic portions of fish and chips, based on hake and cod (which are often confused), as well as fried striped red mullet, ceviche from various fish (sea bream, sea bass, bass, gray mullet or red drum). The menu even invites you to buy a fresh fish from the adjacent store and have it fried there. The prices of the portions, which of course include chips (French fries), are definitely fair at 30 to 36 shekels ($8.60 to $10.35).
I asked what they recommended, and was told “codfish mix” (33 shekels). But if there’s only cod in the portion, where’s the mix? In the coating, it turns out – some of the chunks are coated in crunchy panko crumbs, others with a classic tempura batter. I was given a large bowl with a generous portion of fish in it. Extras included two lemon slices and three sauces (“We make them here”) – tartar, curry and ketchup. No fooling around here, and that’s a good thing.
The chunks of fish are large and piping hot, boneless, very tasty; the coating is present but not too thick, and protects the fish from the oil; the sauces have a delicate flavor (the curry is especially good); and under the fish you’ll find a reasonable quantity of French fries, which are also quite good. A respectable and sufficient portion, both in quantity and quality.
A lively market makes its surroundings lively too. You have to remember this at a time when Tel Aviv is being taken over by original, artificial and zoned food markets, and the Carmel Market itself is scheduled to undergo a massive renovation. Its “invasion” beyond the familiar boundaries is not only delightful and tasty, it’s also important for the neighborhood.
Pop-up Panda, 17 Yom Tov St., Carmel Market, Fridays 11.00-17.00;Fish & Chips Market, 7 Yom Tov St., Carmel Market, Fri 09.00-16.00; Sun-Tues 10.00-19.00; Wed, Thur 10.00-23.00