I was meeting a friend for lunch last week, and he wanted Etzel Itzik to be a surprise, so he just sent me the address and name at the last minute. I didn't look it up on line and had no idea what to expect. He did tell me it was something of a "hidden gem" and was excited to share the experience with me.
Driving up West Dixie Highway in North Miami, one is accustomed to the usual FedEx location, strip club, auto repair shop, empty lot, etc. You also cross train tracks a bunch of times, for some reason. Just back and forth, over and back.
Well, on a normal Wednesday afternoon, Etzel Itzik, a modest restaurant in an equally modest strip mall that was built before I was born, was teeming with activity. Though the surrounding neighborhood is poor and industrial, the parking lot and adjacent street were packed with luxury cars. I was fortunate to get a spot only because a BMW 750 was pulling out of one of the improvised diagonal lawn spots on NE 187th St., but parking is clearly an issue when dining at this establishment.
Since it's Rosh Hashanah, I thought today would be a good one on which to write my review for Etzel Itzik, though my Jewish readers are probably not supposed to be using their computers until at least sundown. In case you haven't figured it out by now, Etzel Itzik is an Israeli restaurant.
And oh boy, is it Israeli. I've never even been to Israel, but if you've done a lot of traveling, you know that Mediterranean countries and people all have a lot of common qualities. Some are good, like fun-loving attitudes, pounding techno beats!, warm weather, great tans, dancing on tables, garlic on everything. And some are bad, like unshaven armpits, bad driving, and a propensity for starting fights.
Etzel Itzik is so foreign-feeling that I bet if you call the phone number, it does that international ring. Like this. It feels like you are in a different country. The decor, the smells, the plates. There are photos plastered all over the walls that give the place a mosaic look. If you were far away you might think the walls were tiled. The tables are small and crowded so that there's barely room to put the food down, in a charming way.
The only giveaway that you're still in the U.S. is that the paper napkins are good-quality, unlike the waxy, translucent ones you get in other countries. Those things just don't do the job. The bathroom probably has terrible one-ply t.p., but I didn't check it out. It might have those toilets you just squat over. Ah, we Americans are a delicate, pampered people.
I would get to this place early, if you're planning on lunch. Probably between 1230 and 1. Otherwise, you'll be standing around waiting for a table, and there's no good place to wait. You'll just be hovering. And since it's still 90 degrees with 80% percent humidity outside, you don't want to be sitting out there.
Once you do get a seat, a pretty young waitress with dark hair and olive skin will come over with a stern look on her face and start slamming little plates down on your table. Olives, pickled carrots, cole slaw, chick peas, pita. She looks like she just got out of the Israeli army and she doesn't take any crap.
The menu is probably impossible to read if you don't know Hebrew. And even though there are English translations, they don't really tell you what you're getting. The friend who took me there is a bad Jew and just described things by saying that we wanted "the tomato and egg thing" and "the hamburger thing" and "the lemonade thing." He eats there regularly, but always with an Israeli who orders for both of them. You can probably just look around and point at stuff that looks good to you. I don't think that will offend anyone there. The badass ex-Israeli military chick waitresses might look at you like you have a checked keffiyeh on your head, but they'll go and get you what you ordered.
So, the things that I just mentioned are the things we ate. They were all tasty. Very fresh. You know when you can taste each of the components since they're really fresh and flavorful? That's what all of the food is like. The hummus is so uncorrupted that it tastes like a bunch of ground chick peas. It's a little on the sandy side, but you know it's the real deal because of this. The lemonade thing comes in a carafe with a straw stuck in it, and once I started drinking it I realized that it was just a mojito without the rum. I haven't decided what I think of that concept. Nope, I've decided. Better with rum.
The pita bread is fresh, doughy, warm. You need to order extra because you want to dip it in everything. We did order an extra one that they didn't bring until we were too full to eat anymore. No big deal. You will probably feel that you should go easy on the waitresses because the place is so full. Plus, they look really tough, and you won't want to push them around.
Though delicious, the food all had parsley and onion and garlic, so I was reminded of my meal by garlicky burps for roughly 18 hours after the meal. It's worth it, like when you get Indian food.
Itzik, the owner, is always there and makes sure everyone is hustling, but I do have a small bit of advice. I don't think it would kill them to have a modest website with the hours and menu and prices (speaking of, the prices are excellent, like a few bucks for each dish). Maybe a little "About" section that tells the story of how the whole thing got started. Maybe he's just old fashioned. I can respect that.
Happy 5771 everybody!!!