There are plenty of choices in the San Fernando Valley for Israelis looking for a taste of home. Grocery stores are stocked with halvah and Bamba snacks that could have come straight off Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. Hebrew-language newspapers are stacked outside local businesses.
But it’s hard to compete with the feel of a new glatt kosher grill in Tarzana where Hebrew fills the air, mixing with the scent of succulent shawarma. At Tel Aviv, a mural-sized photograph of its namesake city’s high-rises covers an entire wall.
“We brought Israel here,” said co-owner and Haifa native Doron Goldberg, 28. “The concept is exactly like in Israel.”
Here in the Valley, it’s long been easy to find quality Middle Eastern fare. What Tel Aviv aims to do is get it to you fast — just like home.
“Every second street [in Israel] you can find a similar place,” said Goldberg, who started the business with 31-year-old Tzahi Yom Tov. “I’m completely fast food.” A number of tables accommodate guests who want to stay and eat in.
Patrons are welcomed into Tel Aviv by a salad bar filled with popular Israeli fixings and a limited menu that offers the greatest hits of Middle Eastern cuisine.
The herb-infused falafel manages the tough task of being crunchy on the outside while maintaining a soft interior. And the hummus, so fresh and creamy, was good enough that my mild-mannered, Midwestern mom — used to eating the dish out of a prepackaged grocery store container — slapped my hand as I went to dispose of her nearly empty plate.
The beautiful sabich pitas are made with layers of flavor, starting with sliced hard-boiled eggs and topped by a crisp wedge of eggplant. And the juicy shawarma plate comes with a spicy tomato salad and amba, a pickled mango sauce.
There’s plenty more to go around: schnitzel, kebabs, even merguez (a spicy sausage). Each can be ordered with pita, laffa, a baguette or on a plate.
Goldberg, a former general manager at Itzik Hagadol Grill in Encino, has culinary roots that go back much further — all the way to the Holy Land, before his service in the Israeli army.
“My dad used to have a restaurant in Haifa. I used to work with him, since I was 12,” he said.
So why name his Los Angeles restaurant after Tel Aviv instead of his hometown, the port city located some 50 miles to the north? Was it the beaches and nightlife of Israel’s second-largest city? The cosmopolitan atmosphere?
Nope. It was something much more practical.
“The logo!” Goldberg said, pointing to his black T-shirt, in which the adjacent “l” and “a” of “Tel Aviv” are set off in bright green.
The kosher eatery’s Tarzana location — which closes early for Shabbat on Friday and remains closed on Saturday — is actually the second site for the restaurant. Goldberg and Yom Tov originally opened their business in 2014 inside a kosher Reseda market, but the space proved too small. In early August, they left that location and reopened in the corner of a busy strip mall on Ventura Boulevard.
Over time, both Tel Aviv’s reputation and popularity have grown. Not long after opening at 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, hungry fans were already sitting around talking on their cellphones, awaiting the fast-appearing authentic delicacies from the kitchen.
At the former location, Goldberg said, it took more than a year for the business to get to the point where it was selling 100 pounds of shawarma daily.
“Here, the first day, I said to make 80 to 100 pounds,” he said. “We were sold out by 4 p.m.” Now, just a few months later, the restaurant averages about 300 pounds per day.
But the Tel Aviv experience is about much more than food. It’s also about the people — both the employees and patrons, who switch between English and Hebrew with ease as they enjoy some playful banter. As you approach the register and place your order, odds are you won’t just be asked if you’d like fries with that (although Tel Aviv does sell fries).
“We like to joke with the customers,” Goldberg said. “You come to eat. You come for the comedy.”
One of Goldberg’s favorites is a reference to the famous tendency of even the best pitas to come apart: “Did you get insurance for the leaking?”
So while Goldberg aims to serve up good food fast — juicy dishes that recall memories of the Jewish state — there’s something else at work, too, at Tel Aviv.
“We have a big heart to give.”
19014 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana