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Shawarma With a Pedigree

In Tel Aviv’s gentrifying Carmel Market, owners of a high-end restaurant open up a new outlet for affordable fare

Dana Kessler
October 24, 2022
Courtesy Shawarma Rambam
Courtesy Shawarma Rambam
Courtesy Shawarma Rambam
Courtesy Shawarma Rambam

A few months ago, a new shawarma place opened in the Carmel Market area in Tel Aviv. That may not sound like big news, but Shawarma Rambam isn’t like other shawarma places. But then again, the Carmel Market isn’t what it used to be either. And both go very well hand-in-hand.

Shawarma Rambam is located on the car-free Rambam street—one of the streets surrounding the market—and what’s different about it is the fact that it belongs to HaBasta, which is a two-minute walk away. For many years, HaBasta has held its position as one of the city’s most revered high-end restaurants. It’s a mixture between a market restaurant and a chef’s restaurant. The atmosphere is informal and the design casual, but its food is highly esteemed, and expensive, and it recently reached No. 14 at the Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

High-end restaurants don’t usually open shawarma places—these are two very different worlds. But the owners of HaBasta had a dream of making shawarma for a long time. One of the most popular items on HaBasta’s menu is their signature pork shawarma—a premium take on the real thing—but that didn’t satisfy their shawarma cravings. They wanted to make the real thing as well, and finally started doing so when COVID-19 struck. While restaurants were closed and only takeout was allowed, they purchased a professional shawarma spit. Then, they approached Yoni Mermelshtine.

Mermelshtine grew up in the restaurant business. His dad, Ezra, was the founder of the beloved Tel Avivi fish restaurant Barbunia, where Yoni worked as well. After his dad died, in 2017, Mermelshtine and his brother sold Barbunia, and went on to other culinary ventures. Now Mermelshtine runs Shawarma Rambam in partnership with HaBasta.

“What’s so special about Shawarma Rambam is its pedigree,” Matan Sharon, street food critic for Time Out Tel Aviv, told me. “The mere fact that they are the shawarma of HaBasta gives them an automatic badge of excellence. The moment the hedonism and the pedantry of HaBasta enter the pita, it turns it into street food with a gourmet twist.”

In addition to their namesake, Shawarma Rambam serves other dishes as well, such as skewered shashlik and vegetarian dishes; they sell beer, have a wine list, and even host wine events once a week. Shawarma and wine might not be a combination that people are used to, but Shawarma Rambam is casually reinventing shawarma culture. There is nothing fancy or ostentatious about the place, but it’s obviously run by food lovers, and is a place that connoisseurs can appreciate and foodies can enjoy. And indeed, their clientele is a mix of people who frequent HaBasta (or wish they could afford it), and random hungry people just looking for a shawarma stand. Shawarma is usually consumed for lunch, on the go, but Shawarma Rambam is also a place to sit down for a fun and unassuming evening.

“When we opened, we didn’t know exactly where we’re going with this,” Mermelshtine told me. “All we knew is that we wanted to make the best shawarma there is. The quality of meat we use is probably higher than most shawarma places use.”

Traditionally, when you ate shawarma you didn’t ask where the meat comes from. Nowadays, though, people are more interested in the quality of meat. If once, most red meat in Israel was imported frozen from Argentina, now there’s more local meat, which is what they use at Rambam. Their meat comes from a butcher who also owns a shop in the Carmel Market, who gets his meat from Dabah—a family-owned company from Deir al-Asad, an Arab town in the Galilee region, that is responsible for over 60% of Israel’s fresh meat. The butcher shop cuts the pieces Mermelshtine desires, and each morning at Shawarma Rambam the meat is piled up on the spits: one spit of veal with lamb’s fat and one spit of pullet marinated overnight in a yogurt marinade. On Thursday nights they have a special of pork shawarma. It’s not the same as HaBasta’s, but well worth a try, and obviously more affordable.

It’s not just about the meat; it’s also about building the pita. The final and very important touch is supervised by local legend Effi Raz of Sabich Frischman and Sabich Tchernichovsly fame. In Tel Aviv his first name is synonymous with sabich (a pita dish containing fried eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, hummus, tahini, amba, salad, and sometimes boiled potatoes). Effi is an expert in mixing the salads and the meat inside the pita so that there is more flavor in every bite. As far as the condiments Rambam offer, they’ve got tzatziki (yogurt sauce), tahini, z’hug (Yemenite hot sauce), fried hot peppers, amba (a mango pickle condiment of Indian Jewish origin, which no shawarma is complete without), tomatoes, parsley with green onions, and onions with sumac (a purple spice that isn’t spicy but tastes like lemon).

Shawarma Rambam’s success isn’t without context. It is actually part of a larger shawarma trend going on in Israel right now.

“The shawarma trend in Tel Aviv started a few years ago with the opening of restaurants specializing in Turkish doner kebab, like the wonderful Mutfak,” Sharon told me. “And more recently there was a popular doner pop-up in HaCarmel market called Gerti. These things took the way people perceive shawarma up a notch. The COVID crisis taught restaurants that they need to diversify. They learned that they need to create more fast-food options, which also work as takeout and are more reasonably priced. Even the fanciest of chefs understands now that most people can’t afford expensive restaurants, so they started offering street food as well, either in a physical location or as take out. They didn’t abandon their expensive restaurants, but they started creating quality food for the everyday person as well.”

Author and food writer Adeena Sussman wrote the cookbook Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen, which was named a Best Fall 2019 cookbook by The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine. She made aliyah in 2018 and since then she cooks and writes from her home, located in the Carmel Market area. Sussman gets all of her produce in the market and knows it like the back of her hand. I met her for coffee at her favorite espresso bar at the end of Carmel Market to talk about Shawarma Rambam. “A lot of the best street food in Israel right now is from people with a fine dining background,” Sussman agreed. “There are a lot of fine-dining refugees and there is a little bit of quality control going on. It used to be that no one asked what was in a shawarma or where the meat came from, but that changed.”

Sussman is also very much aware of the current shawarma trend. “Shawarma is a thing now,” she told me. “It’s funny to say that because I don’t think shawarma ever really went away. It’s true that Israel has the highest proportions of vegans in the world but it’s still only a small percentage. I don’t think your average Israeli 25-year-old male was ever eating vegan health food. But nowadays shawarma is getting a stamp of approval. COVID brought out people’s desire for elemental traditional food because people were seeking comfort. And it’s also about what people can afford. Nowadays in Tel Aviv, paying less than 50 shekels [about $14] for a filling meal is good value for money.”

Even though it has some popular veteran shawarma restaurants, like Dabush, Tel Aviv has never been the go-to place for shawarma. In Israel, Haifa is known as shawarma city. The best shawarma stands in the country are located there, and shawarma connoisseurs are known to make pilgrimages to Shawarma Emil or Shawarma Hazan in the northern city. Up until recently, most shawarma in Tel Aviv was made of turkey or pullet—mostly turkey. People traveled to Haifa to get veal shawarma with lamb’s fat. The current shawarma trend brought veal shawarma with lamb’s fat to Tel Aviv, too. And now in Tel Aviv (at Shawarma Rambam and other places) there is an extra bonus: yogurt sauce, like in Turkey, while in Haifa it’s strictly tahini.

I theorize that Tel Aviv was never a place for shawarma because it is considered a cosmopolitan and therefore inauthentic city. For many, Tel Aviv is a place for sushi or hamburgers. For authentic Middle Eastern food—be it shawarma, hummus, or falafel—you go elsewhere. But since Shawarma Rambam is related to HaBasta, it doesn’t need to be “authentic”—whatever that means. It has to be of high quality and it has to be delicious, as is expected of all new eateries in the increasingly gentrified Carmel Market.

Tel Aviv’s central outdoor market opened in 1920. For years it was the place to buy cheap fresh produce, cheap clothes, and designer knockoffs. Nowadays, like everyplace else, it’s going through quite a bit of gentrification. And in recent years it has become a haven for foodies, including special food tours of the market.

“The fact that Shawarma Rambam is connected to HaBasta speaks to something about the high-low approach to cuisine in Tel Aviv,” Sussman suggested. “HaBasta is one of the most expensive restaurants in Tel Aviv, while Shawarma Rambam offers an affordable option. And there are many places like that in the market area right now. The best places that opened in the market recently are foodie but they’re not high end. Like Diverso Pizza, which is a reasonably priced Neapolitan pizza, or places like Drexler and Panda Pita or HaCarmel 40, which makes an amazing fish sandwich.”

Shawarma Rambam is a welcome new addition to the Carmel Market’s growing foodie scene. And now, you don’t have to shell out the big bucks to taste a bit of HaBasta.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.