At Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, a Holy Trinity of Street Food: Bread, Meatballs, Sauce

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Chicken balls in sauce.
Chicken balls in sauce.Credit: Eran Laor
Eran Laor
Eran Laor

If life worked like a business plan, the summer would see Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market empty out. Hot, humid, lacking air-conditioning and completely chaotic. And then there are the noises and smells assailing you, leaving you no chance to defend yourself. Of course, you don’t get any of this at the upscale Sarona Market or the newly opened market in Ramat Hahayal. But that doesn’t bother the Carmel Market. It doesn’t worry the masses who continue to flock to the south Tel Aviv market and who, paradoxically, make it even more crowded and challenging.

As I attempted to clear a path through the market, no wonder I heard one young man saying these immortal words to his friend: “This is a perfect place for a terrorist.” There’s nothing I can add to that.

I arrived without a specific objective to write about, but I assumed it wouldn’t be difficult to find one: There’s probably no other site in the city in which so many food stalls and fast-food places come and go, all-year-round. And, lo, 65 feet (20 meters) into the market from the Allenby Street-King George Street entrance, the gamble paid off. The truth is, I don’t know what excited me more: Discovering that my street food senses were right, or finding a sign promising “Bread, meatballs, sauce.” Summer or not, let’s see you try and resist that holy trinity.

The vow comes from Chicho, a new branch of an old Haifa eatery, which opened last month on Rabbi Akiva Street (which branches off from the central market thoroughfare).

The meatball sandwich. A very good combination of parana, meat and sauce. Credit: Eran Laor

Things are simple here but varied. Six types of sandwiches, all served in bread and accompanied by a small salad and soft drink (32-35 shekels – $8.35-$9.15); beef meatballs in tomato sauce, onions and herbs; lamb meatballs in a green tehina sauce and spinach; fish balls in a sauce of red pepper, garlic and coriander; chicken balls in pickled lemon sauce and celery;and two vegan options – vegetable pancakes with herbs, and beet pancakes with onions and carrots.

Four large pots sit at the front of the stand. Every time you pick up a lid, you’re greeted with the heartwarming sight of lots of meatballs in a steaming sauce. All that’s left to do is choose.

So I chose (“I’ll try the chicken balls”) – or at least, that’s what I thought. “Your first time?” asked one of the guys behind the counter. “So go for the beef.” I went with his recommendation (35 shekels). Some parana (a traditional Moroccan bread) was dispatched to one of the ovens and emerged a short time later, piping hot and ready to host a nice quantity of round meatballs (about the size of a falafel ball). If you want, you can add pickled vegetables, salad, eggplant, tehina, pickled lemon, a spicy salad dressing, and more.

A leading role

Let’s start with the bread, which justifiably plays a leading roll – sorry, role – at Chicho. Every so often, a different carbohydrate becomes flavor of the month on Israeli food stands and then everyone starts using it – often without any logical connection to what they’re actually serving. (Your honor, I would like to call challah and brioche to the stand.) Parana was one such item a few years ago, being served with almost everything, until people got sick of it.

Chicho is the latest addition to the Carmel Market.Credit: Eran Laor

Thankfully, the Chicho meatball sandwich reminds us how good and effective it can be: A hot, full-bodied bread with a crisp outside (which prevents the main dish from falling apart, which would really spoil things) and an airy, doughy interior to absorb the sauce. This, in effect, observes the time-honored ritual of soaking up the sauce, a pastime beloved by anyone who’s ever found themselves with any kind of bread in front of a pot that was simply begging for it.

The meatballs themselves were very good. Soft, rich balls of meat, not too dense, with a seasoning that was delicate but not overwhelming – the kind that enhances the beef’s flavor rather than concealing it. The tomato sauce worked in a similar fashion, providing a moderating accompaniment to the meatballs.

Actually, I wouldn’t complain if they added a little more garlic and hot pepper to give it some more “bite.” Still, it received some assistance from the food stand’s light green, spicy salad dressing. If you were to prepare a sandwich with Mom’s/Grandma’s meatballs left over from the weekend, you’d be pleased with such a result – and I’m certain that’s exactly what Chicho has in mind.

Two out of three ain’t bad

Thirty minutes later, when I was already at the other end of the market, I realized – and this never happened to me before, honest – that I’d left and simply forgotten to pay. Maybe it was my subconscious acting, because when I returned to Chicho, I also ordered the chicken balls sandwich (32 shekels) that I’d wanted in the first place.

In the “bread, meatballs, sauce” triumvirate, the first and last parts also worked well here – the orange-colored, slightly sour sauce was particularly excellent. The one disappointment was the chicken. Now, I’m not one of those folks who has a fundamental problem with cooked chicken balls, but I’m fully aware of the possible negative outcome. And that’s what happened here: the chicken had a doughy texture and quasi-industrial aftertaste. I continued with just the bread and sauce. Still, two out of three ain’t bad, as another “Meat” once sang.

So, one good sandwich, one less so. But, all things considered, the balance is definitely in Chicho’s favor. It manages to satisfy your craving that comes from walking around the market, whetting your appetite with the pots of meatballs and bread, and giving you more than your money’s worth for a relatively low price. And if that’s the case in the heat of July or August, just think what it will be like at more normal times of year.

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