Julia Hungerford might just be the fairy godmother of the East Side of Austin, TX. If, that is, a fairy godmother can come in the form of the young, dynamic proprietor of a vegetarian Jewish deli food truck called Shhmaltz.
Hungerford—her given name—opened Shhmaltz a little more than a year ago, parking it behind a bookstore in the unofficial epicenter of the city’s creative class (if the number of tattoos is any indication). For the many vegetarians and vegans who populate this city, and this neighborhood especially, Shhmaltz (which recently changed its official spelling from Schmaltz to Shhmaltz) represents a lunchtime oasis in the sea of taco trucks that line its streets.
I dropped by Shhmaltz this summer to see what the meat-free fuss was all about. With her braids secured under a bandanna as she expertly pan-fried falafel, Hungerford chatted with customers all afternoon, serving the endless-seeming crowd of people willing to brave the sweltering 100-plus degree summer day for a good vegetarian lunch.
Why a vegetarian kosher deli truck?
I didn’t initially set out to serve only vegetarian and vegan food. I was raised a vegetarian by my parents and have remained one for most my life. When I traveled to Tel Aviv for a wedding as a child, I was impressed at the great variety of food available to me as a milk-eating vegetarian. Jewish food has a very rich vegetarian aspect, related to the art of keeping kosher.
What gave you the idea to call your place Shhmaltz?
Creatively, I had been using the name Schmaltz for years. It’s a very sentimental word. The closest English word for something overly sentimental is ‘cheesy,’ but the connotations are slightly different. I thought it was funny that it would be a vegetarian trailer, but that wasn’t the most striking part of naming it—schmaltz describes something archaic and culturally unique in its literal meaning: rendered chicken fat. This was important to me to retain in my endeavor.
I was inspired by my family and the Jewish food that seemed so familiar but yet so exotic as well. It’s also a word of luck; schmaltz being something very rich, if you fall into a pot of schmaltz, you’ve fallen into something lucky.
What’s the most popular sandwich on Shhmaltz’s menu?
The ‘Harvey P’ Reuben is the most popular. It’s the most traditional conceptually, but also the most original in its execution. It’s a seitan ‘pastrami’ with fresh cabbage instead of sauerkraut, smothered with vegan ‘Russian’ dressing flavored with chipotles, all served on a very beautiful marble rye.
How many do you typically sell in a day?
Each day is pretty unpredictable. I’ll have days where I don’t sell one falafel; it’s all Reubens. Then I have a day where I have 15 falafels in a row.
How do you come up with your recipes?
My falafel recipe was devised after years of worship at the altar of the Falafel Hut in Knoxville, TN. It was run by a Palestinian woman named Renee. I traveled all over the world eating falafel and no one made it as well. I finally talked to her nephew (not to mention friends that worked for her) and they told me a few secrets. (They just did prep—she didn’t allow anyone else to actually make it.)
I wanted to learn the recipe after the restaurant closed. This was years before I had a notion I might open my own place. Other than that, I usually have an idea and then I graze recipes and take things and leave them and make it work for me. Or sometimes it’s just: “Pow! I’ve got to add this.”
Where are you from originally?
I followed a long line of East Tennesseans to Texas, but for me it was by way of California. I spent a couple years in the mountains of Northeastern California, in a very isolated and rural area. I worked at a wonderful bakery/deli there called American Valley Baking. The owners were great folks and I learned a lot from them.
What’s your favorite indulgence?
I love whiskey. And beer. I’m from Tennessee.
Though I had thoroughly enjoyed the Reuben on my first visit to Shhmaltz, Hungerford’s falafel talk left my mouth watering, so I headed back for another visit. I’d previously given up on Austin’s falafel scene—it’s sparse, considering how international this city likes to imagine itself—but as soon as I took a bite of her pan-fried take on falafel, I was won over.
I thought of trying to pry some cooking secrets from Hungerford, but I’ll probably just keep going back to worship at the Shhmaltz altar instead, leaving the work of making delicious vegetarian Jewish deli food in her capable hands.
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Rachel Lavin, native New Yorker who now calls Austin home, spends her time crafting simple jewels for complicated girls and seeking out the culinary and cultural hidden gems of Austin and beyond.