I admit it – I was wrong. Every time I’ve had occasion to write about a food stand or eatery with a South American/Tex-Mex orientation, I related to the matter as a temporary trend. It reached the shores of Tel Aviv two years ago, and soon it will wash away, leaving behind only a stand or two as a memento. Yet at the moment, not only are these places still operating with increasing popularity, now and then another comes along, strengthening the Latino-Tel Aviv settlement movement.
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The most recent of these is Sabroso, a freshly opened Mexican stand in the Carmel Market. In this market alone you can find three alternative options, proximate in both the geographical and culinary senses: the successful Venezuelan arepa stand, the one selling Argentinian baked goods, and the vegetarian fried quesadilla stand. So what can be said? It’s a phenomenon.
It’s easy to overlook Sabroso (the word means tasty in Spanish), which is located in the southern part of the market. It’s a semi-improvised, colorful stand made of crates, with loud Latin music pouring out of it. What caught my eye, however, was a huge, thin cut of beefsteak searing on the plancha at the front of the stand, emitting sounds and smells of grilling that for me overcame all other distractions.
The menu is basic, but relatively varied because of the options available – chicken, beef, cheese or vegetarian-vegan. There are nachos (20-36 shekels); quesadillas (two for 30-32 shekels); flautas, which are deep-fried Mexican tacos (three for 30-32 shekels); tostadas – fried tortillas with toppings (30-32 shekels); burritos (32-36 shekels) and regular tacos (28-30 shekels). Preparing them is a guy named Omer; I read that he was born into a Jewish family in Mexico and immigrated to Israel several years ago. He doesn’t talk a lot: a bit of Hebrew, Spanish and English with some customers, briefly replying to questions and requests, causing me to wonder whether the implied impatience is a matter of approach, or a language barrier.
Just eight chairs fill every bit of space in the small stand. This causes a short wait at peak hours, but enables you to observe what other customers choose and take that into account. After some dithering, I chose tinga tostadas (chicken in a salsa of chipotle, tomato and onion – 32 shekels) and nachos with beef (36 shekels).
I usually tend to formulate my impressions of the place I’m reviewing at the end of the article, but this time I’ll do it a bit earlier. It’s important for understanding Sabroso’s schtick, before we get to the food itself. It took me a few minutes to catch on, between the arrival of my order and my first bites. It’s like this: The whole Tel Aviv Latino-Tex-Mex genre of recent years established itself here as a kind of finger food – easy and elegant eating, best consumed alongside a cocktail, small and daintily rendered dishes that will work well on Instagram, in a sufficiently cool and trendy atmosphere for going out in the evening or on a date. Sabroso isn’t like that. Not in its location, not in its vibe and certainly not in the food offered there.
The food at Sabroso – and this applies to all the dishes I saw there – is not daintily rendered, is not really beautiful to the eye or to a smartphone camera lens, and isn’t at the forefront of local culinary innovation. I swear I saw the proprietor refill the supply of sour cream from a simple Tnuva package. Nor are you going to find some original twist in the vegetables making up the salsa fresca or an array of different kinds of dip from peppers of various degrees of spiciness, as is customary in other places.
Maybe this sounds like negative criticism, but it could actually be the opposite. That’s because Sabroso makes up for all its conspicuous simplicity with overflowing portions of food that isn’t prettified, but is very satisfying. This is food that provides an excellent answer to gluttony and is wonderfully adapted to the market in terms of price – much more so than other supposedly authentic places that have opened here in recent years.
The tostadas – two corn tortillas briefly fried and topped with the chicken stew, lettuce and sour cream – were large and likable. (An attempt to pick up a hillock like this and bite into it is likely to fail, and could cost you a shirt plus trousers.) Frying made the tortillas crisp, kept them steadfast despite the juicy chicken, and added nice texture to each bite. However, the stew was a bit anemic. I was expecting a touch of heat and smokiness, but I got a lot of chicken and onions in a thin tomato sauce.
The nachos, however, compensated for this in a big way. Though on the menu they appear as an appetizer, the addition of meat makes them a main dish in every respect. An impressively large steak, identical to the one that attracted me initially, was perfectly grilled and then sliced into pieces. These were scattered over a respectable mound of nachos that were fried only after I ordered them. A bit of salsa fresca, a bit of salty cheese, a bit of sour cream. Peppers. Really, there was no need for anything else. This was tasty and wonderful street food that combined juicy pieces of meat (with sweetish strips of fat), the tartness of the vegetables and cheese, and the saltiness of the fried tortilla pieces. The huge portion, like all the other menu items, is enough for two eaters to enjoy.
I didn’t need to try anything else – and even had I wanted to, I really couldn’t have, physically – but I’m not worried. If this stand keeps doing what it’s doing now, there will be other opportunities.