It wasn't an easy assignment, but the editorial board of City Mouse decided to seek out the stalls with the tastiest food in the city. We fretted over the results, and people may (and should) argue about our picks. In the end, we decided that each of the places listed below has something distinctive – be it the food, location, attitude or price – that qualifies it as one of the best meals you will have in Tel Aviv this year. Whether it is just a slice of pizza and a soft drink at 3:00 AM, when you are totally drunk, or a cheap business lunch on the go – consider these palate-pleasers.
The original Shemesh restaurant
Why: If anyone ever creates a map of grill restaurants in Tel Aviv, Etzel Street will surely be one of its most prominent landmarks. Say what you like, the Hatikva neighborhood in the south of the city is still the best place in town for grilled meats. Although several places that go by the name of Shemesh are scattered throughout Gush Dan, there is only one original Shemesh, which has been putting meat on skewers since 1954. With all due respect to the skewers of bull testicles or cow udders, the dish that brings us back here time after time is the kebab, with its three-generations-old recipe that the owners refused to divulge no matter how much we begged. So we put it in a big, fat Iraqi pita, added some fine amba sauce and excellent Yemenite hot sauce and went on our way. We’ll be back.
How much: NIS 25 per skewer
Shipudei Shemesh: 13 Hatikva Street, Tel Aviv
Why: It's important to come here at the right time – early. When you are around Dani – also known as “The Barbarian” – it is easy to forget about manners, aesthetics and niceties. Add to that two or three chairs and ten people standing in line, and you realize what eating standing up is really all about. The ceremony is familiar. “What’ll you have?” Dani asks. Then he opens the silver-tone refrigerator and takes out the skewers of meat, prepared in advance, sprinkles some spices on them and throws them on the grill. The game ends with the discovery of a gigantic spiral of sausage inside the refrigerator, a temptation made of ground beef and lamb and mixed with hot spices. A few minutes on the grill and from there to the inside of a pita, with a bit of tehina and fresh salad. That is all you need, and it’s worth the trip.
How much: NIS 24 for the best lunch in Tel Aviv
Salim veDani: 60 Kedem, Jaffa
Why: For the past 30 years, Falafel Tadmor has been a pilgrimage destination for falafel-lovers and workers in the area who appreciate the freshness and flavor of its dishes. The shortage of tables and chairs creates a scene whereby dozens of people stand outside the shop, falafel in hand, trying not to drip tehina on their clothes, sometimes popping back inside to add something from the all-you-can-eat salad bar or get seconds. Over the years, Tadmor had added schnitzel and shwarma to the menu, but we stayed with the original masterpiece.
How much: NIS 12
Falafel Tadmor: 98 Salameh Street, Tel Aviv
Why: In the heart of the Flea Market is the magical ice-cream place known as Capitolina. The marvelous flavors are prepared in-house using high-quality ingredients such as bittersweet chocolate made by Callebaut of Belgium, cocoa mass from Valrhona of France and real vanilla beans from Madagascar. The professionalism is so outstanding that the scoops will be placed into the cone in a logical order (!). Whatever you do, make sure you try the mascarpone, passion fruit and marshmallow flavor.
How much: NIS 15 for two flavors, NIS 19 for three and NIS 24 for four
Capitolina: 9 Olei Tzion Street, Flea Market, Jaffa
Chinese bao buns at 26 Neve Shaanan Street
Why: The Neve Shaanan pedestrian mall, near the old central bus station, may not sound all that appealing a location, but it still has the most amazing cosmopolitan street food in Tel Aviv. Even before dim sum became the hit du jour, a small, nameless stall that sold Chinese food was open here. It offers dim sum, gyoza and soups at rock-bottom prices. Every bao bun here is prepared the way it ought to be: enormous, filled with meat (usually pork) and seasoned with five-spice powder and fried onion.
How much: NIS 7 for an enormous, delicious bao bun
Chinese bao buns at the nameless restaurant: 26 Neve Shaanan Street, Tel Aviv
Why: Giuseppe Pizza is the Florentin neighborhood’s version of the Soup Nazi. Sour-faced servers behave as if they were doing you a favor by selling you a slice after you have waited longer than usual. But it's not that hard to give up on smiles for the sake of pizza that is probably the best in the city. Calling it divine sounds cliched, but only God knows what they put into that green sauce of theirs that makes the pizza extraordinary. In any case, from the simple to the sophisticated, every slice here is made with meticulous care. In a perfect world, we would get a warm smile and broccoli pizza here every day.
How much: NIS 20 for a slice of broccoli pizza
Pizza Giuseppe: 1 Hayim Vital Street, Tel Aviv
Why: It took a few years, but it was bound to happen. Alan Talmor, the highest-ranking charcutier in Israel, got us accustomed to his gourmet sausages in quite a few restaurants in Tel Aviv, and should have opened a place like this long ago. True, the location is a bit surprising, but if we went to Jaffa for the hummus, why shouldn’t we go for the frankfurters? At Port 19, Talmor’s new stall in the market at Jaffa Port, you can find some of Talmor’s familiar frankfurters and some new ones, too.
How much: NIS 29.
Port 19: the Jaffa Port market, Jaffa
Turk Lahmacun (Shawarma Shelanu)
Why: During the years when relations between Israel and Turkey were mostly on the down side, Turk Lahmacun stayed the most popular Turkish restaurant in Tel Aviv, and for good reason. Alongside the standard variety of grilled meats, there are also three kinds of shawarma, offered in abundance: lamb, turkey and Cornish hen. Choose a regular pita or an Iraqi one (a lafa), but our recommendation is unequivocal: go for the lamb, which is baked on the premises, with ground meat, tomatoes, peppers and spices. The juiciness of this dish goes far beyond the metaphoric.
How much: NIS 25–40
Turk Lahmacun (Shawarma Shelanu): 39 Yehuda Halevi Street, Tel Aviv
Why: A widespread complaint about Tel Aviv street food is the lack of variety. So if you’ve exhausted the selection of falafel, shawarma, pizza and their derivatives, pop over to Yedidia Frenkel Street, where Empanadas 72 was recently opened. For the price of a falafel, you get a generous, delicious empanada with fillings that range between the familiar (mushroom, onion, spinach, spicy beef) and the radical (Roquefort cheese with roasted pepper, ham and cheese with pineapple). Although the empanada is not terribly large, it is filling, and if you go with a duo, you will be all set. If you opt for a sit-down lunch you’ll get salads and business meals, but the most tempting thing is to grab your empanada and eat it on the go. By the way, it’s incredibly delicious the next day, too.
How much: NIS 15 per empanada, NIS 25–30 for one with salads and business meals
Empanada 72: 72 Yedidia Frenkel Street, Tel Aviv
Why: The Florentin neighborhood also wanted to catch the wave of chef’s sandwich bars that swept Tel Aviv this year. But they focused on the meat and on what goes around it most of the time – frena (Moroccan bread). Now, you get to choose what to fill it with, and it is always a tough choice: crispy chicken, portobello mushrooms with fried egg, a club sandwich with chicken breast and smoked goose, or entrecote strips, with or without an egg. Or maybe you’d rather go with the hamburger? Take a good look at the mixed grill, which features all the organ meats mixed with some Cornish hen and adds potato cubes that are addictive. The price of all this is another good reason to come back.
How much: NIS 32 for the mixed grill
Meat Night: 32 Hayim Vital Street, Tel Aviv
Why: There are still a few grocery stores left that are not part of the AM:PM chain, and Avraham’s Makolet is one of the best of them. All the people who used to hang out in Florentin and found themselves starving at weird-o’-clock in the morning for some carbohydrates to balance their drug and alcohol levels would head over to Avraham’s for a sandwich with everything (everything that was still in stock, that is) stuffed in a roll, just like old times.
How much: NIS 10–14 per sandwich
Makolet Avraham: 7 Hayim Vital Street (corner of Cordovero Street), Tel Aviv
Why: Three varieties of malabi (non-dairy, dairy and chocolate), three generations and more than 60 years of experience making this creamy pudding so popular in the Middle East. These malabis do not come with toppings whose purpose is usually to mask the flavor, but simply with a touch of rosewater syrup. As the line of cars stretches out along Yefet Street, the best dessert in Jaffa is hiding on Jerusalem Boulevard. We have not even mentioned the thick hot sahlab drink that they will start serving in mid-November.
How much: NIS 8 for a small malabi; NIS 12 for a large one
Malabi Dajani: 94 Jerusalem Boulevard (corner of Erlich Street), Jaffa