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Mediterranean food delights at Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill in Encino

I recently got into a heated discussion with a friend from Lebanon, after I told him that, for my money, Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill made some of the best hummus in town.

Our discussion turned into a heated argument, as he insisted that Israel should not call its mashed chickpeas, flavored with tahini, garlic and lemon juice “hummus,” since hummus is a dish Israel “stole” (his word!) from other countries in the region. Aside from the obvious fact that food knows no national boundaries, there’s the clear fact that hummus was born, if anywhere, in Egypt, where it’s described in a 13th-century cookbook from Cairo.

But beyond that, hummus has been a standard in the cooking of what used to be called The Levant – which covers a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia. Claiming hummus as yours is like arguing that your forebears invented bread or the notion of drinking water.

It’s a dish that belongs to the whole region – with, of course, sundry local variations, like a hot sauce called skhug among Yemenites, along with hummus flavored with paprika, with fava beans, with beets, even with ground beef.

In Hawthorne, there’s the Hummus House, with nine variations. Hummus belongs to all of us.

It was about four years ago that the lively Israeli hot spot called Itzik Hagadol shut down, to be replaced in time by a branch of the Israeli hot spot Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill – one Israeli eatery took over from another. (Other Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grills are in Valley Village and Woodland Hills, with a Fish Grill in Tarzana.)

Clearly, the space has hummus in its DNA. And that’s far from the only Israeli element of the Grill. Like the Carmel Market of Tel Aviv – the central market around which the life of the city revolves – Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill is open Sunday through Friday, and closed on Saturday for the Sabbath.

Like the Carmel Market, it’s a place filled with noise, with wonderful smells, with crowds, and with food, served in portions that demand consideration of what may remain of your post-New Year’s diet.

Even though the Grill is 7,500 miles from the Market, it feels like the Market – and like Tel Aviv, which Forbes Magazine recently referred to as, “The city that never sleeps.” If you want a taste of Tel Aviv here in SoCal, the Grill is the place to go.

The menu is relatively simple. Place your order at the cash register, then move down the line till you get to one of the extremely fast-moving servers, who assemble your meal from many pans and trays.

You need to be on your toes, especially at lunchtime, when the place is packed to the gunnels, for the servers are on a roll – they’re in motion. Indecision does not work, for there are diners piling up behind you.

Food preparers hustle in one area of the kitchen, stocked with hummus and other ingredients, at Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill in Encino. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill in Encino dishes up a variety of Middle Eastern/Israeli specialties. The mini chain has sister restaurants in Tarzana, Valley Village, Woodland Hills and another location in Encino. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

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It can be a bit intimidating. It can lead to you simply nodding your head, and agreeing to every option. The one to watch out for is a smear of the fire engine red pepper sauce, which verges on the incendiary. If a mouth on fire is not your idea of a good time, just say no. Otherwise, you’ll do fine, just saying yes.

And especially say yes to the fantastic grilled eggplant, and the aforementioned hummus – which I prefer with a dab of the hot sauce; it makes the hummus come alive. But then, that’s me.

The first choice you have to make, when you arrive at the cash register, is whether you want a pita, a baguette, a plate – or an oversized pastry, sort of a pita on steroids, called a laffa. It’s a Middle Eastern flatbread that’s also called taboon and Iraqi pita. It’s a wonderful thing, a meal in itself.

For the next choice, you decide between beef shawarma, chicken shawarma, schnitzel, kababs, chicken thighs, chicken breasts, merguez sausage, falafel, a hamburger (yup, a hamburger!) – and a kitchen sink of a dish rarely encountered on this side of the Mediterranean called sabich.

Related: 14 best restaurants serving Middle Eastern food in the San Fernando Valley

Like the laffa, sabich seems to be another Iraqi dish, with a name that may come from the Arabic word meaning “morning.” And indeed, it would make for a fine breakfast sandwich – a pita packed with fried eggplant, sliced hard-cooked egg, hummus, tahini, Israeli salad and more. Picking it up is a task. Eating it is easy – after that first bite, it just vanishes.

If you’re getting one of the plates, expect a pile of food that makes you wonder what exactly it is you’ve ordered. Get one of the shawarmas – long cooked, richly spiced, chopped meat – which sits atop a pita, accompanied by hummus, eggplant, three types of cabbage salad (I hesitated, trying to figure out which I should get; the server simply piled on all three), a mixed vegetable salad, pickles, olives, peppers, a quartet of sauces, and, unexpectedly, a pile of french fries. Forget eating it all; simply carrying it to the table is a task.

Indeed, finding a table is a task as well. The crowds descend on the Grill, talking loudly to each other and on their cellphones – just like in Tel Aviv. The experience is similar to being in one of the many cafés on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. Though in this case, that busy street is Ventura Boulevard. The Mediterranean is both close … and a world away.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email mreats@aol.com.

Tel Aviv Glatt Kosher Grill

Rating: 3 stars
Address: 17201 Ventura Blvd., Encino
Information: 818-774-9400; www.telavivkoshergrill.com
Cuisine: Middle Eastern/Israeli
When: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday; lunch only, Friday
Details: Soft drinks; no reservations
Atmosphere: Somewhat chaotic, noisy and utterly joyous, this taste of Tel Aviv is filled with locals speaking Hebrew, talking into their cellphones, and inhaling massive amounts of hummus, falafel and pita. It’s a very happy experience.
Prices: About $18 per person
On the menu: 10 à la cartes ($9.99-$16.99); Combinations: 11 Pitas ($13.50-$22.50), 10 Laffas ($15-$24), 11 Baguettes ($15-$24), 11 Plates ($17-$29), 6 Extras (75 cents-$7.50)
Credit cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)

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