Middle Eastern food done right
If you’re craving a fast, inexpensive meal that’s bursting with flavor, then look no further than The Chubby Chickpea in Canton Center. This 12-seat restaurant, which opened in June 2010, offers authentic Middle Eastern food with an Israeli accent.
Owner Avi Shemtov, a 27-year-old Sharon native who now lives in Canton, said he dreamed of running his own restaurant since he was a boy. His father, Yona Shemtov, owned a number of Boston-area restaurants, including a kosher place in Sharon called King David in the early 1990s. Today, Avi Shemtov oversees a staff of five, which includes his wife, a Boston schoolteacher, and his father.
Even with a voice of experience guiding him, Shemtov said he’s still refining the business, such as opting to close on Sundays starting in September.
“People always tell you how hard the restaurant business is, but the reality is that it’s hard because of how much time you have to put in,’’ he said. After putting in 90-hour work weeks, he decided he was “not willing to give up my whole life’’ to work.
Shemtov said he came up with the playful name and logo after careful consideration. “It’s my way of saying we’re fun and inviting’’ and welcoming to all ethnicities.
He considers educating people unfamiliar with Middle Eastern food part of his mission. “I take the greatest satisfaction from two things: When people from the Mideast tell me my food is better’’ than what they’ve had in the past, and when people who don’t know the “food try it and then become regular customers.’’
My family, with two hungry teenagers, was impressed by the fresh flavors of everything we tried. The signature Chubby Chickpea sandwich ($7) offers two of the most popular items, shawarma and falafel, in one huge and satisfying package.
Shawarma is marinated strips of meat grilled on a rotating cone, which produces intensely flavored slices that are also meltingly tender. The Chubby Chickpea offers dark-meat chicken or a beef and lamb mixture. Its falafel (aptly described on the menu as “ground chickpeas seasoned and fried into little crispy vegetarian balls of happiness’’) is made on the premises. “We start with raw chickpeas,’’ said Shemtov.
The contrasting textures of a fried eggplant sandwich (small $4, large $5.50), crisp breading encasing thin slices of creamy eggplant, were swoon-worthy.
All sandwiches include Israeli salad (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley with lemon and salt) and homemade hummus. Other toppings, such as tahini, sauerkraut, tabouli, or mango sauce, can be added at no extra charge.
Shemtov said a popular item that often runs out is vegetarian grape leaves, stuffed with a mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, and spices. A side order of six is $3, or you can add two grape leaves and a drink to any sandwich order for $1. The little rolls were moist and deliciously addictive.
For larger appetites, the dinner plate offerings will not disappoint. We tried the beef kabob ($7.50) and were surprised to find grilled ground beef patties instead of skewered chunks.
Shemtov explained that in the Middle East, kabobs are made with ground meat while shish kabobs are served as chunks. Enough people have been similarly confused that he plans on including an explanation on his next menu printing. Whatever the form, however, the beef was well seasoned and quickly devoured.
All dinner plates include bread, hummus, and a choice of rice, fries, tabouli, or Israeli salad. Shemtov said he imports the small pitas from Israel but makes the other ones, called laffa, in house. The breads were so good, puffy and chewy, that my teenagers kept eyeing my portion. Good thing you can order extras for 75 cents each.
My kids were also intrigued by the baked goods, especially the bourekas ($1.75 each), puffed pastries with fillings such as potato or cheese. During a second visit, we were disappointed that all the baked goods were sold out. Shemtov was apologetic, and encourages customers who have their hearts set on a specific item to call in advance.
Diners who have dietary restrictions, such as vegans and those seeking gluten-free items, should be reassured to hear that the kitchen uses a separate fryer to avoid cross-contamination.
The Chubby Chickpea serves up fresh, tasty food fast, and at prices that won’t put a dent in your wallet. What a delicious way to better understand the Middle East.