Sunday, July 13, 2008

"This Mexican Walks into Israel…"

I worked with Jeff Fernandez first at 411mania, then over at Inside Pulse. Longtime readers know that – from 2003 to 2006 – I was That Friday Music News Guy and Jeff held it down on Saturdays with the long-running, always entertaining Saturday Swindle Sheet. My favorite Fernandez stuff has to start with this piece on strip club anthems. His "World's Finest" team-up is another gem. But, he hooked me for good with the fast food reviews he'd slip into columns. It's no secret that he inspired what's inexplicably become the most popular topic on this blog, so I'm handing over the keyboard to him…

Last month I went to Israel. Since That_Bootleg_Guy and I both share an appreciation for all types of food (though mainly the unhealthy variety), and I've got no outlet for this at either Machine Gun Funk or Inside Pulse (damn Fingers for not letting me post food reviews to Moodspins), I'm making a guest appearance here to share some of my culinary adventures.

Pizza-by-the-slice joints are also all over the place, with a popular topping on pizza being corn. I guess since putting meat on pizza isn't kosher, they felt the need to experiment with as many other vegetable combos as possible. But I digress... in actuality, I was really digging the corn, as it gives a nice texture to the pizza and is pretty damn good when paired with some sliced green olives. Other common toppings are onions, spinach, tomato and... tuna. Sorry, I just couldn't. You'll have to try that one yourself to find out what it's like.

Probably the most easily accessible and therefore most well-known of Middle Eastern culinary items is the trifecta of hummus, falafel and shawarma. For the uninitiated, here's a quick breakdown: Hummus is a ground chickpea-based paste eaten either as a condiment or a dip with a side of sliced pita bread for dipping. Falafel are golf-ball sized fritters made with crushed, spiced chickpeas and are often served with tahini (sesame paste) for dipping. Last, but certainly not least, shawarma—the most substantial of the three and the one that I'll focus on the most here—is made by stacking sliced pieces of lamb, goat or turkey (in some cases beef or chicken is also used) onto a vertical skewer (not unlike those things you can put on your desk for impaling pieces of paper that you intend to read later) and then sticking the whole thing into a rotisserie, from which the meat is sliced off (like the meat for a gyros or tacos al pastor) an put into a pita with a wide array of toppings.

The first shawarma I had was in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. It was delicious goat meat (being of Mexican heritage, I was already familiar with the deliciousness that is goat meat) sliced off of a spit and served inside of a pita with red cabbage, hummus and diced tomato and cucumber salad (also known as Israel salad, of salat aravi). It was about four dollars, which is pretty cheap given the exchange rate. I would later have another one at a snack bar across from the Church of the Redeemer, along with a cup of extra strong coffee (which is par for the course, as filtered coffee is mocked by locals, as well as everyone else not hailing rom North America).

As I had more and more shawarma sandwiches, I got more adventurous, mixing it up with a variety of sides including (but not limited to) hummus, tahini, salat aravi, lettuce, red cabbage, sliced gherkins, skhug (a Yemeni-style hot chili paste), minced red onion, thick-cut french fries (yes, they put them in the pita, and it is a beautiful thing), eggplant, corn and amba (a mango pickle paste). One of the nights I was in Jerusalem, I received a pointer from some locals that I had met at the local rock bar to try it in an Iraqi-style lafa bread, which is similar to a pita but more similar to a large burrito tortilla in both texture and size. This meant that I could get the same thing, but much, much bigger. Being an American, this was something that I would embrace and order for the rest of my time in the country. While the independently-owned places tend to be hit-or-miss, but always cheaper, the best chains I had were in West Jerusalem at a place called Moshiko (which had a really good corn salad) and what I believe was called Hishman. The latter, aside from having a great selection of condiments and two different types of meat, had a self-serve condiment bar with large plastic containers so you could stockpile the shit for carry-out. My favorite was the caramelized, grilled onions, which were so good that they brought a tear to my eye. These were so dead-on to the Maxwell Street style that I can only imagine that the chain is owned or at the very least managed by a Maxwell Street expatriate. (I would be remiss not to mention the coincidence that Maxwell Street area is still colloquially known as "Jew Town.")

No matter where I go, McDonald's always seems to have some sort of different fare, and while past international trips have exposed me to good (McCountry in Prague), bad (McKroket in Amsterdam) and just plain odd (El Maco Grande in Stockholm and Beef Latino in Zürich) things, Israel was no different. In Israel, McDonald's has kosher and non-kosher locations, though I believe only one of the locations I visited was kosher. While this means no cheeseburgers, no bacon and no McRib... ever, neither of the three of those are available at any of the McDonald's I visited.

The McRoyale seems to be the flagship sandwich here—surpassing the Big Mac and replacing the Quarter Pounder—and after ordering one I realized why. They're not fucking around here. This thing is not only thicker than the Whopper with which you're familiar (which, of course, has always been touted as bigger than anything on the McDonald's menu), but it's also got it beaten by at least an inch, in diameter. It's topped with mayonnaise, red onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle and some sort of mystery sauce that's sort of like the Big Mac sauce except slightly thinner, redder in color and with more a tomato taste. Color me impressed.

The McKebbab was probably my favorite thing on the menu. At first I was a little apprehensive about a pita-based sandwich at McDonald's, but I was pleasantly surprised. The pita used was lafa-sized and stuffed with two spiced lamb-meat patties, lettuce, tomato, red onion and an interesting mystery sauce. It had a light green color and a bitterness perhaps either achieved by some sort of herbs or paste. I would say that it tasted of stronger feta cheese, but that wouldn't be kosher. Either way, McKebbab rocked my socks and I had to come back a second time for it before I left.

I also tried the Fish Royale, which was sans cheese, but had shredded lettuce and tomato, along with a kosher tartar sauce. This wasn't bad, and the lettuce and tomato would be worth trying on a non-kosher Filet O' Fish, but it was nothing spectacular.

Also on available were potato wedges and something called "corn sticks." While the latter wasn't going to happen, the former can be subbed into a value meal in lieu of fries for an additional cost. The wedges were warm, crispy and fantastic, and very reminiscent of those found at KFC.

McDonald's Israel also recently unveiled its take on the classic salat aravi, which consists of a bowl of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion and mint sprigs (all of the above diced) with a smattering of olive oil and lemon juice. The entire time I was eating it, there were two thoughts flying about my head: (1) this would be much better with some hot peppers, lime, cilantro and a bowl of chips, and (2) peppermint sprigs in my food is really odd.

KFC and Burger King (both of which I tried in Tel Aviv) pretty much offer the same fare you'd find in the U.S., except for a few subtleties like BK offering roasted onions on your Whopper (again, no cheese here), while KFC still has those fantastic chicken nuggets that were abandoned at American locations several years back in favor of the Colonel's Crispy Strips and popcorn chicken. I had two orders of them and was good for the night.

My next trip is to South America, where I hope McDonald's isn't trying to capitalize on cuy.


Joe Reid said...

I was given to understand that tahini was "flavor sauce" and falafel were "crunch patties." And that both were served by a grumbly gentleman named "Christopher."

mike mejor said...

GREAT piece Jeff. If you're ever in Los Angeles, you've gotta make time for Shula & Esther's on Fairfax. They've got a lot of the stuff you ate, plus the most phenomenal Yemenite chicken soup that you'll ever have. AJC, we gotta hit it up the next time youre up this way.

that mexican guy said...

Fernandez speaks the truth on goat meat. There's a place in Chula Vista that turns petting zoo critters into delicious plate of spicy goodness. A zillion times better than your frog legs, Aaron.

Mathan said...

Man! If I knew this was a place I could dump stuff that the cruel taskmasters at IP won't allow, I'd totally have submitted "Fast Food Joints I'm Going to Miss When I Move from Vegas to Baltimore."

And Jeff, I've got to say that I love that your vacation eats pieces and how adventureous you are, in every way.

In my dream world you and Cam have a show on the Food Network.

NY Jon said...

It's a little pricey, but if the wife ever lets you go back to New York there's a place called "Miriam" in Brooklyn. I've had the Moroccan lamb tajin there and (in a language you can understand) it's like there's a party in my mouth and everyone's invited.

That Bootleg Guy said...

JOE: I'd have gone with the Klauh Kalesh/Mountain Dew or crab juice reference.

MEX: I've eaten tacos de seso (Google it!) but not goat?! We'll rectify this oversight posthaste.

MATH: Your writing is always welcome here. Although, I assume your list will be "Del Taco #1...and I'll finish the rest of the list later".

Tom said...

JON: Where in Brooklyn? Is it the new place that just opened in Cobble Hill?

NY Jon said...

The new one IS in Cobble Hill, but I've only been to the original in Park Slope. 5th and Warren, I think? Terrific date place, too.

JS said...

Reads like you had a lot to get off your chest, Jeff.

A great read. More guest global food tripping entries please. :)