Steve Cook and Mike Solomonov — the co-founders of CookNSolo — have expanded their restaurant empire by opening Merkaz (“center” in Hebrew), an Israeli pita-sandwich shop intended to replicate the airy market stalls and street corner vendors of Tel Aviv.
“In Tel Aviv, street food is such a big part of the culture; people really get a lot of joy out of it,” Cook said.
Merkaz opened Thanksgiving week in a chic, bright, ground-floor fishbowl on Sansom Street, just below 13th. Fans and foodies packed Merkaz’s opening lunch runs, a pleasant surprise to General Manager Brien Murphy.
“Opening the week of Thanksgiving, we really didn’t know what to expect. But as you can see,” said Murphy, gesturing to a full house, “the response has been awesome.”
With other restaurants Goldie, Dizengoff and Abe Fisher also on Sansom Street but on the west side of Broad, this is CookNSolo’s first foray into Washington Square West.
“We’re used to being on the other side of Broad,” Murphy said. “So we’re glad to bring what we do to this side of Sansom Street.”
Several of the customers at Merkaz on a recent day had traveled to Israel before, and were excited for a taste of something both exotic and familiar.
To Irene Levy Baker, a food writer from Elkins Park who’d recently returned from Israel, the verisimilitude of the experience won the day.
“This is exactly what you’d eat at Carmel Market in Tel Aviv,” she said to her daughter, Rachel. “It’s bustling, just like an Israeli market would be.”
Mother and daughter shared a lamb pita sandwich; the hummus of the day, which came topped with Brussels sprouts and pomegranate; and the salatim, the cooked salad of the day, which was eggplant with date molasses, sesame and dill.
Many more who were less nostalgic for Israel — because they’d never been — were in line due to Solomonov’s celebrity and perceived Midas touch.
“We’re big fans. We love all of (Solomonov’s) restaurants so we said, ‘Let’s try it out,’” said June, who preferred not to give her last name. Her dining companion gave the lamb pita a thumbs up. “The lamb has good char, and the pita is great,” he said.
In addition to lunch, Merkaz serves breakfast from 8-11 a.m.; it’s the time of day Cook enjoys most at his newest restaurant.
“I actually like it in there for breakfast because it’s a lot more mellow,” he said.
Among early-morning diners, a likely favorite will be the breakfast pita, with egg, chopped salad, labneh (a yogurt-based cheese) and za’atar (a blend of Israeli herbs).
Once the lunch rush rolls around, the hummus Solomonov is known for is prepared two ways. The hummus of the day features regularly changing toppings, like the Brussels sprouts and pomegranate. And the hummus foul is served with pita, pickles and topped with foul (cooked, mashed fava beans) and a slow cooked haminado egg, prepared according to a Sephardic method.
But unlike at Dizengoff, the hummus won’t be front and center. At Merkaz, the spotlight is on the sandwiches.
“What we learned from Goldie, which is maybe obvious, is that people really like sandwiches. And Philadelphia is really a sandwich town,” Cook said.
Two of the most popular figure to be the chicken schnitzel pita and the sabich.
Breaded, fried and pounded thin, the chicken schnitzel is layered with carrots, cabbage, tahini (a sauce of lemon, garlic and toasted, ground sesame seeds) and chopped salad.
The haminado egg makes another appearance in what may come to be Merkaz’s signature sandwich, the sabich. It’s joined by the star here, crispy fried eggplant, and topped with tahini, chopped salad and amba, an Iraqi pickled mango sauce.
“All it takes to understand the magic of sabich … is eating one while standing on a street corner in Tel Aviv,” Solomonov said in a press release.
What concerned Cook initially was whether the Merkaz’s offerings would be different enough. Dizengoff also offers bedazzled hummus platters and Goldie sells a hand-held pita sandwich of Middle Eastern origin. Would they be cannibalizing their other ventures with this new one?
“We really didn’t know,” Cook said. “That’s the challenge, but that’s the opportunity, too, because Dizengoff doesn’t do sandwiches and Goldie does one very popular, specific type of sandwich (falafel).”
Traveling to Israel together to work on their latest bestselling cookbook reaffirmed the duo’s belief that Merkaz could add value and culinary diversity to a crowded Philadelphia food scene.
“Israelis love to stuff things inside of pita,” Cook said. “There are a lot of things that people are eating on the street, all the time, that are not falafel, that Americans haven’t had that much exposure to.”