Between the sprawling beach lining its western edge and the wide, shady boulevards that roam through it, Israel’s cosmopolitan center visually stuns. But Tel Aviv is more than just its good looks: From street food to top chefs, the cooks and kitchens of this city use fresh, Mediterranean produce, a heavy hand with the local spices, and culinary inspiration from around the globe. Many of Israel’s most famous dishes can be found in some form all over the world, but the unique excellence of the local versions sets them apart. From the pedestrian streets of Carmel Market to the stone paths of Jaffa’s old city, here are the five dishes that you don’t want to miss in Tel Aviv.
This North African baked egg dish is enjoying something of a moment on the trends list, but here, the classic version is just a jumping-off point. Traditionally eaten for breakfast, the one-skillet dish of eggs baked into tomato and pepper sauce gets mopped up with warm slices of thick bread—a universally comforting dish. These days, you’ll find versions that add lamb, sausage, tuna, and even beef jerky, or that switch out the tomatoes for eggplant. But the heart of the dish remains constant: a spiced stew with runny eggs and fresh bread.
Where to try it: Hashomer 1, 1 Hashomer St. (map)
Photo by Naomi Tomky
Any rendition of Israel’s most iconic food that you find in Tel Aviv will put the supermarket version in the U.S. to shame. Higher-quality chickpeas and fresher tahini, mixed together and crushed by hand, simply yield a better bowl—and one that you’ll scoop with hot, fluffy, straight-from-the-oven rounds of pita bread. Smooth and thick, but not paste-like, hummus here is a meal, a side dish, a dip, or a canvas for toppings: mushrooms, fava beans, hard-boiled eggs. Get your hummus at its freshest, early in the day—most places close when they sell out of that day’s batch. [See also "5 Things Israel Can Teach Us About Hummus."]
Where to try it: Shlomo & Doron, 29 Yishkon St. (map)
Falafel, too, has earned a less-than-favorable reputation in the U.S. through years of subpar versions. Not so much here, where the soft balls of chickpea dough dip into hot fryer oil right before your eyes. Look for a place where they’re labeled gluten-free, if possible: There shouldn’t be any flour added. The insides are almost creamy, the outside crunchy. If you’re dubious, stand in line—many places hand out sample balls while you wait. After tasting one, you’ll want a sandwich right away: They’re even better wrapped in warm pita and doused with sesame-fragrant tahini.
Where to try it: Hakosem, 1 Shlomo Hamelech St. (map)
Photo by Naomi Tomky
This Iraqi-Jewish eggplant sandwich tops the charts in messiness, complexity, and tastiness. Hard-boiled eggs and fried slices of eggplant form the base, but the main attraction of this vegetarian’s delight is the avalanche of toppings: hummus, tahini sauce, Israeli tomato salad, parsley, onions, pickles, and amba, an Iraqi fermented mango sauce. The fresh pita just barely holds the whole thing together, and, as pickles swim by eggs on a sea of hummus, no one bite will ever be the same as another.
Where to try it: Sabich Frishman, 42 Frishman St. (map)
File this cross between brioche and monkey bread under the “restrictions breed creativity” category. The long, slow bake happens overnight, so that the observant Yemenite Jews from whom it hails can have fresh, warm bread without breaking the rules about resting on the Sabbath. The tall, yeasty, pull-apart bread gets its flakiness from ample use of butter or margarine; it mushrooms over the top of the pan, giving it a distinct shape. It can be served with Yemenite baked hard-boiled eggs, which similarly cook in an overnight oven, and grated tomato, which cuts through some of the greasiness.
Where to try it: Hasaluf, 1 Hatikva St., Hatikva Market (map)
About the author: Naomi Tomky uses her unrelenting enthusiasm as an eater, photographer, and writer to propel herself around the world. From trailing a street food hawker in Singapore to navigating the ancient roads of the Mayan jungle, she explores the world with a hungry eye—and mouth. Follow her on Twitter @gastrognome and on Instagram @the_gastrognome.