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Sabich to tacos: street food in Tel Aviv and Brunswick

April 26, 2019

Ann Basu
STREET EATS Taco the Town, which opened in 2016, is a new Brunswick staple, serving up authentic California street food such as tacos al pastor and pollo asado to more than 200 customers daily.

Rushing to catch a bus back to Jerusalem, Sophie stops at Sabich Shel Oved (Oved’s Sabich in English) for a not-quite sandwich, not-quite taco Israeli delicacy: sabich. Back in Brunswick, Eliana strolls down Maine Street after class and picks up lunch: sweet potato and fish tacos from the Taco the Town food truck.

The food of Brunswick—historically creamy, French Canadian cuisine—rarely mimics the middle eastern spices of Israel. But both share a portable and filling staple: cheap, carb-wrapped vegetables and protein, perfect during rush hour in a jam-packed city or when looking for an escape from Bowdoin’s campus.

Oved’s Sabich

Oved Daniel’s sabich is orderly: first, the eggs. In order to achieve their dark red hue and rich flavor, these babies are slow cooked for eight hours with red onions. Their counterpart, the eggplant, is sliced, dipped in egg yolks and seared. The tomatoes and cucumbers are chopped and then tossed for the Israeli salad. The hummus is prepared according to Daniel’s carefully honed recipe. Potatoes are boiled. Cucumbers are pickled. Pita dough is pre-mixed and pre-cooked, ready to heat up in a moment’s notice. And the sauces. Oh, the sauces! There is a parsley sauce; skhug, a Yemenite hot sauce; and amba, a mango-chutney-like thick yellow sauce.

The prep for a single sabich sandwich may take multiple days, but when you order your sandwich at Sabich Shel Oved’s in Tel Aviv, it’s a five minute affair.

Daniel expects you to order in his own language. Instead of asking for onions or for pickles, you must say “onion-ize me” or “pickl-ize me,” turning the Hebrew nouns into verbs.

An avid soccer fan, Daniel has renamed the sauces as well, each in honor of an Israeli soccer team—amba becomes Maccabi and skhug becomes Ha-Poel. He applauds you for ambitious spice requests, and looks at you disappointedly if you ask to hold off on an ingredient. And if your order is record-breaking in any way, he’ll photograph you and hang it up for posterity.

Daniel claims to have popularized the sabich in Israel, and explains that its name is an acronym for the Hebrew words for “salad-egg-more-eggplant.” But others point to the Sasson family of Ramat Gan. One of the founding brothers of their small, family-owned Kiosk was named Sabich.

The sandwich came to Israel in the 1950s, when Jews were exiled from Iraq. The dish has some Indian influence (the mango chutney-style sauce) because of historic Iraqi-Indian trade connections. In Iraq, sabich originated as a breakfast food. Families would cook the ingredients before Shabbat and then, on Saturday morning, would wake up and eat the dish without having to perform any labor.

But Iraqis never used the term “sabich.” When my roommate with Iraqi roots told her mom about her sabich sandwich, her mom said something along the lines of, “Oh, you mean breakfast?” Some refer to the dish as the original breakfast sandwich.

But at Oved’s Sabich, the meal extends far beyond breakfast; customers line the streets around lunch, dinner and late into the night. The whole process—waiting in line, ordering and eating your sandwich—takes place on the street and in strange company. After the fluster of ordering from Daniel, you carry your flaming hot, pita-encased meal to one of the outdoor tables, where men sitting and enjoying their sabichs look like they’ve been there since the invention of time.

Taco the Town

After his first day running Taco the Town, having sold out of everything in stock, chef Tai Choo cried.

“I was happy, and I was overwhelmed; I knew that I had to stay up until midnight to prep everything for the next day, let alone for the rest of the week,” he said.

Choo opened Taco the Town, now Brunswick’s most popular food truck, in 2016 in hopes to show the area “a true, authentic taco truck experience.” He modeled the truck off of those in his native Sacramento, Calif. neighborhood and his paternal grandmother’s cooking.

Food trucks are common in big cities like Tel Aviv, often providing cheap lunchtime options for working, pressed-for-time locals. But in Brunswick, where downtown is three blocks long, there is little competition for Taco the Town, and Choo’s un-American eats satisfy many Mainers. A post on the truck’s Facebook page from the first day of the season (only a month ago), has countless comments from happy customers containing selfies featuring smiles, salsa and tasty tacos.

“There are a lot of people that are from here [and] are used to the same stuff—hamburgers, fried seafood. But when they when they see our truck, a lot of the locals try [our food] and they always come back,” said Choo.

He does not claim to make authentic Mexican food, but instead provides the comfort of homemade pollo asado and carne al pastor.

Ann Basu
Munchin' on the move Tai Choo, Megan Boucher and Ashleigh Nadeau prepare burritos inside of their food truck, Taco the Town.

“It’s authentic Sarah Sanchez, who’s my grandma,” Choo said while searing haddock for the Pescado Enseñada taco. “A lot of the recipes are from my grandmother. All the sauces, the braising of the beef, the seasoning blends, stuff like that—all the techniques were all taught to me by my grandma.”

By starting his own business, Choo hoped to escape the “unhealthy” practices of the restaurant scene and gain flexibility. Instead of working late hours, he’s open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (although he begins the day’s prepwork at 5 a.m.) and is closed for four months in the winter. Parked on the Brunswick mall, Taco the Town sees between 200 and 250 visitors daily and must pass monthly inspections, which Choo says are “more strict than the inspections for normal restaurants.”

While some food trucks are not-so-affectionately called “roach coaches,” the Taco the Town kitchen is spotless, and Choo provides a high quality, fast, casual dining experience. From well-sweetened horchata (a traditional Mexican drink made of rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon) to burritos filling enough for two meals, Choo’s menu and the ease of a food truck—although be warned of long lines on warm days—make Taco the Town a Maine Street staple.


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