The state of Israel turned 66 last week, on May 6. American Jews celebrate Israeli Independence Day in the same way Jews celebrate everything—we eat! And so it was with great pleasure that I sat down to a heaping plate of Israeli food on Tuesday night at the synagogue where I teach. Did you know I teach a Jewish cooking class to 7th graders? Salatim, the various little Israeli salads—beet salad, sauerkraut, purple cabbage, Israeli salad (diced cucumber and tomato with vinaigrette and herbs), hummus, babaganoush, and tahini—topped my pita stuffed with falafel. On the side, grape leaves filled with rice, and on top of everything, two Israeli hot sauces, or skhugs, one green and one red. This feast was catered by Ta-Eem Grill in Hollywood, and I was extremely impressed with the authenticity and flavor of the food. The hot sauce was hot, for starters. Polishing off my generously stuffed pita, I was transported back to the time I gained 5 pounds in a week in Israel. Israeli food is many things, but light isn’t one. And when I travel, I take my fill of everything—it’s not often I’m in Israel, so I leave no schwarma untasted on my short journeys to the homeland. I’ve never been to Ta-Eem in person, but I do have a favorite falafel establishment near me, a place that feels like an escape, a wormhole from Santa Monica to the Middle East. It is a humble stand-alone building on one of the more dilapidated Santa Monica blocks of Pico Boulevard. Hungry Pocket Falafel is located in a small strip mall next to a constantly rotating tenant—it’s been two different yogurt shops and a boba shop in the few years I’ve been aware of it—but Hungry Pocket stays steadfast and unchanged. The interior is tiled like a subway bathroom; there are a few tables in the small space, and a counter that opens to the schwarma rotisserie and flattop. There are freshly pressed juices—carrot and orange and beet, not the trendy kind; there are cubes of salty, crumbly house made feta; hand stuffed dolmas and potent house hot sauce, served in a communal bowl that is passed from table to table on request. There is fresh tabbouleh, one of my favorite versions of this grain salad, herbaceous and lemony. There is of course falafel, there is schwarma, there are gyros and kebab. A falafel sandwich here costs a whopping $4.75, and you can choose whole-wheat pita. I believe there are all-you-can eat falafel nights on Mondays and Wednesdays for $8.75, though I have never participated—I do attempt to practice moderation when I am not traveling.
It is the care taken with the little things here that make it special, and after I’ve consumed their wonderful babaganoush and chicken kebab, I turn my thoughts towards baklava. For $1.35 I can enjoy a small square of gooey, chewy, homemade baklava, all phyllo and nuts and honey and nothing else. Like Hungry Pocket itself, the baklava has no superfluous ingredients. Except maybe a little bit of love.