Another Israeli fast casual restaurant from the people behind Goldie and Dizengoff? Yep. Did I stalk its opening by lurking around 13th and Samson to see if they were letting people in or not? There was no other option.
When Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook open a new restaurant, the Philly food scene goes nuts. With their fast casual spots, it’s always expected that there will be lines out the door and a sell–out before closing time. It happened in 2011 with the opening of Federal Donuts and it happened again during Merkaz’s opening week. However, with all this hype comes the inevitable question: is it really worth it?
Merkaz, which translates to "center" in Hebrew and alludes to a transit hub in Tel Aviv, focuses mainly on sandwiches, hummus, and small salads. They also serve locally–beloved Ox Coffee, teas, and "gazoz," which are Israeli soft drinks similar to the ones served at campus favorite Goldie. These menu offerings, coupled with the intimate yet airy space, provide all the makings for a cafe that's sure to be a neighborhood favorite, filling up with suited people from the corporate complexes on the surrounding blocks.
I tried two of the sandwiches on different days, to ensure that I got a broad impression. I started with the Schnitzel sandwich. Schnitzel is a staple in any Israeli household—the simplicity of fried, breaded chicken with some chopped salad and hummus is amazing, and I expected no less of Merkaz’s take.
Unfortunately, the only word that I could use to describe it is underwhelming. No, it’s not bad by any means. It’s a perfectly good sandwich. But, it lacks any distinguishing flavor, which is surprising—considering the rest of the menu is punched up with an occasionally overwhelming amount of spices. The breaded chicken worked well with the freshly chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and a slathering of tehina, but it still felt like something was missing. Why would anyone pay $12 for a chicken cutlet in a pita if it has no edge? It was also thrown together pretty sloppily and took a while to come out when I visited at the tail–end of the lunch rush, around 3:30 p.m.
After being slightly disappointed with my first taste of Merkaz, I went a second time and got the lamb sandwich, which was exponentially better. The lamb was well–cooked yet tender, perfectly seasoned with their shawarma spice, and accompanied by chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and slightly blistered peppers and onions. All of the simple ingredients came together to make something both approachable and elevated, which is what was missing with the schnitzel.
All in all, I wouldn’t write off Merkaz yet, but based on my experience and my very Israeli parents’ negative opinions of the Sabich (eggplant, egg, salad, amba, tehina) and Jerusalem Grill (turkey, chicken hearts, onions, tehina, pickles) sandwiches, Merkaz still has some soul searching to do. The food fluctuated from over–seasoned and salty to slightly bland and underwhelming. By no means do I think Merkaz is a total flop, but there’s ample room for improvement.