It’s forty degrees and the wind is blowing, but I’m sitting on an even colder marble slab outside the Christian Science Plaza in Boston so that Avi Shemtov can keep a metaphorical eye on his food truck, The Chubby Chickpea. The Chubby Chickpea went kosher about a month ago, but only a small certificate in the bottom right corner of the window would let you know. Still, it is Boston’s first kosher food truck.
The Chubby Chickpea calls its cuisine, “Sephardic Street Fare,” but the term is more poetic than precise. This is classic Israeli road food: hummus, falafel, babaganoush, and grilled meats wrapped in laffa. My dining companions agree that the chicken is juicy and well-prepared. Our side of falafel is tasty, and the hummus substantial. It’s less a spread than a dish of its own. I prefer my shawarma with more aggressive seasoning and I wish the laffa were better. But the food is unquestionably good, and the portions are generous without being excessive.
The food is even better at the Chubby Chickpea restaurant. The night before, my wife and I took the highway 30 miles to Canton, MA to try the restaurant, and I’m glad we did. The menu there is different, more interesting and more developed. My beef kabob had a beautiful herbal flavor, and the roasted eggplant served alongside it was the best thing I had either meal (It helped that pieces of brisket somehow found their way onto my plate). There were other restaurant-only items I wanted to try, like braised short ribs and panko-crusted schnitzel (sold out), though by now the short ribs are probably off the menu. The food truck menu is static; it’s designed to be simple, repeatable middle eastern food. The restaurant menu changes constantly; it’s where Shemtov tries new things. Right now he’s planning a pareve cannoli made with a banana pudding cream. It’s where he tries to grow as a chef.
Like, I imagine, a fair number of Forward readers, I eat meat at only at kosher restaurants, but eat fish and dairy anywhere. Too often the experience of eating at a kosher restaurant is disappointing. We accept things from kosher restaurants that we wouldn’t accept from any other restaurant. (I’m reminded of the old Jewish joke: The food is terrible. And such small portions!)
The Chubby Chickpea feels like any other food truck — and the Canton, MA restaurant more-or-less feels like any other restaurant — because Shemtov’s goal was always to start a restaurant, not to start a kosher restaurant. It’s a minor semantic distinction, but an important one. Shemtov knows the industry. His father owned several restaurants in the Boston area and he has years of cooking experience under his belt. Moreover, The Chubby Chickpea opened as a non-kosher restaurant three-and-a-half years ago. In that time, Shemtov learned how to run a business. He learned the difference between the theoretical price a restaurant pays for food, and the actual price after “shrinkage.” (5 pounds of chicken, for example, may only be 4 pounds after preparation and cooking.) He also knows how to spread his costs around so that going kosher does not lead to dramatically higher prices. It bears repeating: The Chubby Chickpea is one of the most affordable kosher (meat) meals I’ve had.
Shemtov decided to make the truck kosher because of his attachment to the Jewish community. He grew up keeping kosher, and many of his friends and family still do. You understand this impulse to serve his community more implicitly at the restaurant than at the food truck. The night I was there, the restaurant’s patrons were all visibly Orthodox. None of them would have gone to the old Chubby Chickpea. And it’s doubtful that any of them regularly go for lunch at the food truck. I overheard one horror story about travel that opened with taking the commuter rail to South Station. This is a spot for locals.
And even though I’m not one of them and the food truck is geographically much closer to me, I’m more likely to go back to the restaurant before I go back to the food truck. As we leave, Shemtov tells me that he wants to make a kosher version of bolognese. He goes through the different obstacles — the kind of meat, the cream — and starts listing possible substitutions. To be honest, the substitutions don’t sound like they’ll work, but I want to try whatever Shemtov comes up with. The food is good enough that you want to see him try new things and new flavors. You want to see how far he can go.