Levinsky street market — a blast from the past

The Levinsky Street market always makes me stop. I pass through nearly every day on my way to work, and regularly restock on coffee beans at David’s spice shop and spices at Pereg (no more than 80 grams at a time — that’s what fits into my jars). I get my olive oil from Oded, where they refill my glass bottle from a big metal tank and I leave with nothing more than freshly pressed oil. And if I’m hungry, then I break down and buy a boureka or fat Balkan pita from Penso, and if there isn’t too much of a line, I indulge in some cured salmon at Haim Rafael.

Negotiating the morass is a bit difficult; the grid of narrow, tree-less one way streets was not made for modern traffic, and it’s generally gridlocked so tightly that it’s a fight to get a bicycle through. In the middle of it all are a handful of synagogues, where men come and go amid the hubbub outside.

But if one thing can be said for the people who frequent the area, it’s that they appreciate the treasures of the market, which starts at Haaliyah Street and ends rather abruptly just before Herzl, in a colorful explosion of toy shops. Coincidentally or not, the traffic jam ends around there, too.

One day I brought my camera with me. As I stopped in front of Pereg to take a photograph, an elderly man pulled up beside me on his bike.

“What are you photographing?” he asked.

“The stores,” I said.

“Oh, that’s good. The stores are nice,” he said, smiling in approval before he biked on.

Half a block down, as I stopped to photograph Oded’s olive shop, the shopkeeper from the neighboring store approached me. “What, you only photograph olive oil?” he said.

So I photographed him too. I couldn’t see it at the time, because of the sunlight, but he has a genuine, gentle smile visible in his eyes, and every time I see the photo of him, I can’t help but smile, too.

The market was founded in the 1920s by immigrants from the Balkans and it still has a good dose of its original flavor. Unlike most of Tel Aviv’s other markets, like the Carmel market, Hatikva Market or the latest addition, the farmer’s market, there’s no fresh produce here, but there are lots of spices, dried fruit and coffee, as well as prepared foods, including breads, bourekas, olives and olive oil. There’s also a strong Persian presence, visible in the Persian labels alongside the Hebrew, the abundance of Persian lemons mixed in among the more standard grains and beans, the ingredients that you won’t recognize (tip: dumim are jujubes) and the sprinkling of Persian restaurants on side streets.

Chefs shop here. Lately I’ve seen tour groups of Israelis, generally stopped outside one spice store or another, as well as a handful of stray foreign tourists. And no wonder.

Unlike some places, the new vendors here appreciate the atmosphere of the neighborhood, and know that’s what people want when they come here. Thus you have the relative newcomer Niso, a Turkish restaurant that greets diners with a beautiful glass case full of stuffed vegetables, and another relative newcomer whose signs advertise stews cooked on kerosene burners — just like people used to do, and just like people still do in the storied little eateries in the markets.

The area is packed full of narrow, grid-like streets, and stretching off the market street in both directions you’ll find an array of interesting things, including a large concentration of small and large kitchen stores, lighting shops and the occasional restaurant.

I’m not going to start naming individual dried fruit, nut and grain shops — first off, they’re endless, and they’re hard to miss. Second, I usually go to a different place every time, picking based on the price of the nut or fruit I’m looking for, which often varies due to variables including size and production country, as well as the selection available. (Update: I often frequent the store at the corner of Zevulon — I think the owner’s name is David, and that’s him in the photo below. They’re totally used to me bringing my own bags.)

So here begins my list of Levinsky street institutions. It’s by no means comprehensive, and you certainly shouldn’t be afraid to try out places that don’t appear here, since I often do.

Yom Tov Deli (Levinsky 43, photo at right) — This little nook attracts customers with a colorful display of olives and olive spreads out front. Inside you’ll find local white cheeses, filo dough and kadaif pastry, among others.

Haim Raphael (Levinsky 36, top photo in post) — This popular deli always has quite the line waiting to buy their selection of cold salads, cured fish and picked olives, not to mention their wall-full of wines. While I can’t attest to the quality of the wine, the smoked fish has a reputation that precedes it, and the stuffed grape leaves are fabulous.

Pereg (Levinsky 46, above photo) — While Pereg means poppy seed in Hebrew, the store is actually named after its founder, who had a fitting name for a spice shop. Spotted easily by the meter-tall towers of paprika lining the front of the shop, this store could be considered one of the country’s most reputable spice shops. It sells dozens of fresh spices in containers and by weight, along with fresh halva, and various mixes to spice up rice and couscous. They even have some strange blue stones to ward off the evil eye.

Ginger (Levinsky 50) is a new, well-stocked spice shop right near the corner of Haaliyah Street.

David’s (Atlas) (Levinsky 49, above photo) — This little business roasts its own coffee, and you’ll find at least a dozen different types, all for very reasonable prices. You can also get unroasted coffee beans here, if that’s your thing, cocoa beans, and a strange concoction known as Yemenite coffee. Plus, there’s the usual range of spices, dried herbs for tea, flavorings for baking and food coloring.

Oded (Hahalutzim 13/Levinsky 57, above photo)– They usually have one or two varieties of freshly pressed oil. A liter currently costs NIS 55, and prices vary for other quantities. The olive oil is literally on tap, flowing out of huge metal tanks. You can bring your old bottles for a refill, and get a slight discount in exchange. They have very irregular hours, but I think it’s worth it to wait to catch them when they’re open. Personally, I love the concept of going to the store to buy olive oil, and acquiring nothing more than, well, olive oil. No new packaging, nothing.

Mixed in are a few newcomers I haven’t checked out, including an Asian food store next to Pereg, and a Nazareth baklava shop that my friends say is expensive but very good.

Penso (Levinsky 43, above photo) — a true Turkish bakery, they’ll sell you bourekas, and they’ll sell you bourekitas, but they won’t sell you bourekasim, because as any self-respecting Judeo-Spanish speaker knows, bourekas are already plural, and these guys are the real thing. Inside is a caseful of Turkish-style balkava, made with walnuts and without rosewater, as well as various fresh breads. They also sell filo and kadaif pastry.

Niso (Levinsky 47) — For some reason, I thought this place was new. It turns out it’s been there for a full four years, which in terms of the market, is actually quite new. Evoking the flavor of the neighborhood, the restaurant offers a range of salads and stuffed vegetables, all on display behind a broad glass case. It’s quite vegetarian friendly.

Kitchen stores in the area

Of course, there’s 4chef (Nahlat Binyamin 100), which stocks basic and not-so-basic tools for chefs, including kitchen equipment, simple white dishes and baking ingredients. I stock up here (actually, now I go to Haik conditoria — see following) on 73% cacao baker’s chocolate, which I buy by the kilo, and most of which, I must admit, never finds its way into any kind of baked good.

Across the street from 4chef is a newcomer that opened within the past year or so — another large kitchen store that has more decorative dishware as well as a large collection of pots and storage containers.

Two stores on Hahalutzim street were recommended to me — Grubstein at Hahalutzim 18 (03-6824619), and Haik Conditoria at Hahalutzim 12 (03-6828444). Haik is open until 4 p.m. on weekdays, and it is indeed an excellent if crammed little shop for everything that has to do with baking, including kilos of baker’s chocolate for the best prices you’ll find in town. All the chocolate is dairy-free, but some is made on dairy machines (and thus is considered dairy by Jewish dietary law) and some is made on parve machines. You can ask for whichever kind you need. As for Grubstein — I’ve never caught it open.

Others on Levinsky

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