It’s lunchtime on a recent Tuesday at Crave, a gourmet street food bistro in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, or shuk, and the place is packed.
Customers — couples, families and shoppers — fill the 50 seats situated indoors and outside on the sidewalk. They’re chowing down on the Crave Nacho Grande, a bowl heaped with corn chips, lamb bacon, house-made vegan cheese and black beans, avocado and pickled onions; the Tonkatsu Beef Sliders, panko crusted burgers piled with slaw, pickled eggplant, tonkatsu ketchup and sesame mayo; and the Not Just For Breakfast Burrito, a satisfying mound of scrambled eggs, vegan cheese and fried potato hash with smoked salmon or lamb bacon.
When they leave, new customers take their place.
This lunchtime crush is a point of pride for the four Crave owners, who were told they would never fill the place for the midday meal. They were also told, emphatically, that no one would eat at their quirky, 80-square-meter, stripped down space if they played a background playlist of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and The Beatles.
Right now, Springsteen is blasting from the loudspeakers.
It’s five months since Crave opened on this street just outside the market that has become its unofficial restaurant row. The naysayers seemed to have gotten it wrong, and the Crave guys aren’t too proud to say “I told you so.” But really, they’re just pleased that they’re getting it right.
The draw for many diners is the unusual — for Israel — kosher menu that focuses on street food popular the world over, which here means sliders and tacos, hot dogs and bean bowls. But it’s gourmet, which means the pulled brisket is adobo braised, the rolls are soft potato buns made with potato starch by Russell’s Bakery, a local baker, and the hot dog is paired with kimchi in a Korean twist on that most American of meals.
These standards are kicked up many notches courtesy of two of the owners, chef Todd Aarons and restaurateur Tzvi Maller, both of whom grew up in Los Angeles and have the fondest memories of hot dogs at Dodger Stadium, Korean barbecue and fish tacos from the food trucks parked on LA’s streets (this was before either of them kept kosher).
“We call this slow fast food,” said Aarons. “It’s how chefs want to eat at the end of the night. It’s less pretentious but just as professional and fun, and it fits the vibe that Mahane Yehuda is about.”
He has an eager partner in Maller, who isn’t a chef but established and still owns the popular NoBo Wine and Grill in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Aarons was an artisanal chef before that term was commonly used, cooking at San Francisco’s Zuni Café with Judy Rodgers, a disciple of Alice Waters, the famed Northern California chef, and later in New York at Savoy, a farm-to-table SoHo restaurant before that was a known concept, either.
It’s those cooking chops that Aarons brings to Crave, where kosher-keeping Jews, many of them English-speaking immigrants who have only dreamed of bacon on their burgers (here it’s lamb) and cheese (vegan) on their tacos, get to fulfill the dream of tasting those forbidden foods.
“You want what you can’t have,” said Maller, grinning. “Yoni [Van Leeuwen, another partner] sometimes doesn’t get it, but he didn’t eat it growing up.”
A kosher Shake Shack concept
Several years back two of the owners, James Oppenheim and Maller, old friends on different career tracks, were trying to figure out what business they could open together.
Maller was a restaurateur living in New Jersey, the owner of several spots, including Nobo Wine and Grill and Pasta Factory. Oppenheim was a serial high-tech entrepreneur, having founded and run several startups, as well as working in business development at The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.
At the time, Oppenheim was traveling back and forth to the US for work, crashing frequently at Maller’s home.
On the road he was eating at a range of places, including the higher-end casual fast food that has entered the American dining experience, places like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Shake Shack. He was impressed by the quality of the food and experience, and what he found fascinating was how high-quality street food and service could be replicated so seamlessly, and later become companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
“I love marketing and innovation and originality and I love high-tech for those reasons,” said Oppenheim. “I was thinking about how to build something great to scale.”
He was also thinking back to his childhood food memories back in Long Island, with memories of days at Jones Beach and the comfort food at the snack bar, food memories, he said, “that dug deep.”
His new guru in this culinary exploration was Danny Meyer, the famed New York restauranteur who owns iconic New York restaurants and then created Shake Shack, which was first located in a cart in Madison Square Park. Meyer wrote about the experience in his 2008 book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.”
Those concepts spoke to Oppenheim.
“I wanted to do something good and do it from Israel,” he said. “That’s huge for me. When folks say the best cheeseburger they’ve had was kosher and in Jerusalem, it’s cool.”
Oppenheim’s obvious partner was Maller, who had founded his own mini restaurant empire in the Jewish environs of Teaneck and Monsey.
Maller wanted to return to Israel with his wife and seven kids, but needed a plan.
He loved the idea of doing gourmet street food to scale, not limiting it to one store but doing something big, “a game-changer,” he said.
“James wanted something that could be replicated,” said Maller. That made sense to him, as the “details of a high-end place are huge, it’s a huge amount of details, down to the kind of chives you use.”
Oppenheim did not want white tablecloths and maitre d’s in his restaurant venture.
“I’m a casual kind of guy,” he said.
Maller made his way back to Jerusalem two years ago. At around the same time, chef Aarons, who had his own kosher restaurant, Mosaica, in Voorhees, New Jersey, where he melded the 14 cuisines of the Mediterranean in a sit-down restaurant and then opened the renowned Tierra Sur restaurant in Oxnard, California, for the kosher Stern Winery, was also trying to get back to Israel with his Israeli wife and four daughters.
Aarons and his family moved to Pardes Hanna, and soon after, he and Maller were introduced by a mutual friend.
Their fourth partner, Van Leeuwen, is a lawyer who was born and raised in Israel by American parents and is the sabra of the group, which is what they knew they all needed.
“We needed an Israeli,” said Maller. “We were all gringos.”
The restaurant relationships
Between the four men, all in their forties, they have a combined 90 years of marriage, and 28 kids (Oppenheim has nine, Van Leeuwen has eight, Maller has seven and Aarons has four).
“We went into this as a marriage, and we understand certain things about relationships,” said Van Leeuwen of the four-way partnership. “The discourse we had for a year is we can do better than what’s around.”
Van Leeuwen said people told him it was an insane idea to open in the shuk, particularly after the rash of attacks last year.
But three of the partners, Oppenheim, Maller and Van Leeuwen, all live in Nachlaot, the neighborhood adjacent to the Mahane Yehuda. Crave’s location is literally in their backyard.
Their customers haven’t stayed away either, since the place opened in November. The first waves of customers were mostly Anglos.
“There’s a high percentage of foodies in the Anglo community, and they’re very talkative on social media,” said Van Leeuwen.
The restaurant began making the rounds of Israeli media a few weeks ago and now the Israelis are coming, though they don’t react as quickly on social media, according to Van Leeuwen. But they’re coming from all over the country, a sure sign that word is getting around.
Another major characteristic of Crave is that it offers sit-down service, but does not have a wait staff. Customers order their food at the main counter, and their food is brought to them by the one waiter on staff. There is no tipping, and the restaurant staff is paid well, said Oppenheim.
“We’ve done a great job in eliminating so many of the pet peeves I have in the restaurant business,” he said. “I can’t stand the antagonistic relationship between customers and servers, the lack of transparency.”
It’s a concept he brought from the startup world, where companies that want the best people have to give them a stake in the place.
“Our staff don’t look at us as an ATM machine but as a place where they can grow. When the money debate is off the table, you have the luxury of choosing the best people.”
It’s a style that matches the Israeli entrepreneurial spirit, noted Oppenheim.
“The unifying factor is joy of living and the idea that good food, good experiences, should not just be for the wealthy,” he said. “It should be for everybody. And with Todd’s menu, it’s doable.”