May 10 2013 04:59 PM

Hillcrest Israeli restaurant has nothing to do with torches

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Chicken-liver skewers and Israeli salad
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

The first thing to come to the minds of many when they hear the term "Israeli cuisine" is probably bagels and lox. They would be misguided. Falafel would be more like it, or maybe shawarma. Told that, the next thing to come to the minds of many San Diegans might be that you can't get Israeli cuisine here. They would be wrong. Hillcrest's Tiki Taka Grill (646 University Ave.) offers Israeli, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jewish, food.

Israeli street food is among the best in the world, and Tiki Taka Grill is at its best when it stays close to those roots. The falafel and shawarma are good examples, but perhaps the singular, standout offering at Tiki Taka is something servers bring to your table for free: laffa bread. Sold streetside throughout Israel, often as a wrap for shawarma, laffa is a thick pita bread often sprinkled with sumac and sesame seeds and sometimes—as it is at Tiki Taka—grilled, so that it's chewy in the middle but crispy on the outside. It's brought to your table with various salads such as the lightly pickled green and red cabbages (ubiquitous in Israel), a mild "salsa," garbanzo beans and hummus (not the best I've tasted). It might be bad form, but it would be very easy to fill up on these alone.

A large portion of Tiki Taka's menu riffs on another version of street food offered in restaurant settings in Tel Aviv's Hatikvah Quarter: grilled skewers of a dazzling variety of meats, including beef, lamb, duck, foie gras, as well as offal such as chicken livers and spleens and cow udders. Tiki Taka offers chicken thighs, hearts or livers, lamb, kefta (spiced ground beef), rib eye or fillet mignon. I was disappointed not to see a foie gras option (king of the Hatikvah Quarter), but I know who's to blame for that.

The skewers are served with a choice of side dishes. Israeli salad (based in cucumber, tomato and red onion) is the winner—refreshing, even bracing. The veggie rice is the loser: colored and yet bland (try cooking it in stock, please).

The best of the non-street-food options is the chicken liver with onions and mushrooms, sautéed with red wine and honey and served over mashed potatoes. While serving the dish in a bowl detracts from the presentation, the flavor profile is spot on. The red wine and honey—a particularly good and very Israeli touch—brings the elements of the dish together into a unified whole.

The main problem Tiki Taka faces may be establishing an identity. The name (honoring, oddly enough, the brilliant style of soccer played by FC Barcelona) says nothing about the food inside. The location—tucked away in a strip mall behind a Highway 163 off-ramp—does it few favors. But if it can establish that identity, perhaps people will come to know that Israeli food goes beyond bagels and lox. It certainly does at Tiki Taka Grill. 

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER

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