While we’ve been celebrating the arrival of a hummusiya and a kosher food truck here in Seattle, Portland’s been busy taking its own Israeli and Jewish food scene up a notch.
As Aviv in Seattle whips up warm bowls of hummus on Capitol Hill, an unrelated Aviv serves vegan Israeli cuisine in Southeast Portland. Co-owner Tal Caspi first forayed into the Portland food scene with his cart, Gonzo, five years ago. When that closed, he wanted to find a way to continue serving his popular Israeli foods to the city by taking them inside and showing off what he could do with a real kitchen.
While some of his biggest hits, like the soy-curl-laced vegan shawarma fries, are holdovers from the food truck, he also brings a more refined touch to best-selling dishes like the carrots “al ha esh” — roasted and served with harissa and his cashew-based labneh.
Caspi grew up splitting his time between this country and Israel. He cracks a smile when discussing the modern Israeli food movement sweeping the US, and Portland in particular. “Portland picks up trends and goes all the way with them,” he says. “Suddenly, there are five new Israeli restaurants out of nowhere.”
The hummus and pita, while good, don’t quite meet Seattle’s impressive Aviv, but the fact that you can get them alongside bourekas, shakshuka, cocktails, and even “Israeli horchata” made from chilled mate tea, rice milk, mint, and cinnamon, makes it worth the trip. And someday you may not have to travel for them: One of Caspi’s goals (along with opening Portland’s first vegan ice cream shop) is to open a version of Aviv in Seattle, though he acknowledges he’d run into a little trouble with the name.
Steven Goldsmith doesn’t need to worry about sharing a name with anyone else: His kosher barbecue truck in Southwest Portland bears the distinct moniker “Holy Smokes Righteous Eats.” Goldsmith moved to the area five years ago to take a position as a math and science dean, but after losing the job, he struggled to find another one — and his wife told him he wasn’t allowed to just sit around the house. So he turned what started as a joke into reality and opened a kosher barbecue.
The truck, walking distance from multiple synagogues, brings in Jews of all stripes — including the rabbis, who Goldsmith says have been some of his best customers. Besides knishes and pastrami, the food doesn’t have any particularly Jewish or Israeli ties, and the menu could come from any barbecue spot: smoked brisket and chicken, potato salad, and cornbread, which gives it broad appeal to neighborhood Jews and non-Jews alike. Goldsmith even stumbled onto a third community thankful for his truck: The owners of the gas station where he set up shop are Muslim, and he quickly got hooked in with locals in need of Halal catering.
Inclusivity also drives chef Jenn Louis at her new Israeli fine-dining spot, Ray, where a welcome sign greets diners in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. Louis, twice nominated for James Beard Foundation awards for her cooking and an alumna of Top Chef Masters, closed her previous restaurant, Lincoln, and opened Ray in its place out of her love for the food of Israel. Louis brings together the variety of cuisines that live side by side there, spiking them with her own culinary techniques and ideas, as demonstrated by her Persian braised lamb over carrot hummus.
Besides her regular menu, she does monthly dinners featuring a single cuisine present in Israel: Yemenite, Ethiopian, and possibly soon, in keeping with her mantra of inclusivity, Palestinian. In that same effort to bring people together over food (because, she says, “the best way to teach people to love each other is to eat with them”), she designed the restaurant to welcome groups. Big tables and lazy Susans encourage sharing, and there’s even a giant pan of shakshuka meant for at least four people.
Like Caspi at Aviv, Louis surprises diners with the directions in which she takes Israeli ingredients, even in drinks: The Bloody Mary is garnished with shawarma jerky, and the “Askenazi” marries tahini with vodka and Kahlúa into a remarkably smooth, bewitchingly complex and savory drink that deserves both a pre-dinner and dessert role.
Is Portland winning the Jewish food fight against Seattle? It really doesn’t matter. In the competition for better Jewish, kosher, and Israeli food in the Northwest, there are only winners.
Aviv | 1125 SE Division St., Portland | avivpdx.com
Holy Smokes | 3975 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy, Portland | holysmokes.house
Ray | 3808 N Williams Ave., Portland | raypdx.com