“Are you looking for a big truck or something to eat?” Netanel “Nate” Harat shouts, standing on the pavement of Pierson Street.
Certainly the food, we answer. With a toothy smile and a wave of his hand, he turns and leads the way through the parking lot to his small restaurant adjacent to a used-car store on the north end of Phoenix’s Melrose neighborhood.
“It used to be the jungle,” he later explains as he sat at a table in his new pop-up, Mike’s kitchen.
“I’m friends with the owner of this building,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, you don’t do anything with it, I’ll make it nice and make a food cart.’
Now that jungle has been transformed into a shady patio oasis. A row of tables with white plastic chairs line a patterned concrete floor. Colorful paintings depict scenes from Arizona. Deep in the narrow space, a gleaming stainless steel cart diffuses rich aromas into the air.
From this cart, Harat serves a small menu with a big flavor. He describes the options as “Israeli street food”. There’s rich, dark beef that he slowly cooks overnight, grilled chicken, which begins marinating in a fragrant spice mix the night before, and sabich, a pita stuffed with roasted eggplant and hard-boiled eggs, which Hatal says is “primarily designed for the Israeli community.”
Recipes and dishes are inspired by his mother, Mika, after whom he named the restaurant, and her upbringing in Jerusalem.
“We talk almost daily. She shares recipes with me, I’ll share with her,” he says, noting that his mother recently cooked her beef stew for friends back home in Isreal, who loved it.
Hatal moved to the United States when he was 22 years old. He first studied in western Pennsylvania before joining the architecture program at Kent State University in Ohio. While in school, he also worked in the school bakery for three years, learning the industrial side of running a kitchen. He applied what he learned to cooking meals for his fellow students.
“It was almost once a week that I cooked for my friends, and it grew and grew,” he says. “Every time I told people we were going to dinner, they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll be there.'”
After changing majors and earning a degree in finance, Harat moved to Missouri. In 2007, business ventures brought him to Phoenix, but throughout his travels and career changes, memories of his mother’s cooking stayed with him.
“When I came home from school, there were pots and pans,” he says. “Friends from school, they knew it. They were like, ‘Nate, can I come home with you?'”
Over the years, Harat has learned its recipes.
“She was teaching me. She didn’t necessarily let me cook with her at the same time she was cooking because I was in her way, but she taught me a lot,” Harat says, joking that “on the contrary, my dad who has lived with her for almost 50 years, he knows how to make an omelet.”
Despite her lifelong love of cooking, Harat never received formal culinary training. He decided to turn his passion into a business thanks to a friend who was organizing a party. The friend searched in vain for a catering company that could cook Israeli dishes for his event.
“I jokingly told him, ‘I’ll make it for you, you only buy the ingredients,'” Harat says. This joke became a reality, and even though the invitation list grew from close friends and family to over 100 people, Harat cooked the food.
“When I did the catered event for my friend, people approached me and said, ‘Hey, do you have a business card?'” Harat says.
The experience of seeing people enjoy his food inspired Harat to make plans for his own business. Thinking back to that party and other times when he cooked for friends in college and beyond, Harat remembered the dishes that had always been a hit. These would make up the menu.
He uses many of his mother’s methods, but experiments with ingredients he can find in the United States. Cucumbers and tomatoes are local, and some seasonings can be mixed to taste just right. But for other items, the original is a must. The tahini comes from Israel, and the soft, chewy pitas it uses are made by an Israeli company with a factory on the East Coast.
Harat’s bespoke cart includes a steamer he had attached specifically for pita bread. A refrigerated section holds the fresh vegetables and coleslaw, and a bain-marie, or heated water bath, keeps the beef and chicken, which Harat prepares in a kitchen space in the commissariat, hot and ready to serve.
The menu officially features sandwiches and rice plates, but Harat is happy to make any customer-favorite combinations. Spices and flavor are provided by a homemade hot sauce Harat dubbed “Orange Infresno”, green cilantro and Schug pepper, also known as zhug sauce which Harat says is a “staple of the Yemeni cuisine in Israel”, and amba, a tangy, sharp, salty and sweet condiment made from mango. A fresh, floral rose-flavored lemonade washes it all down.
Creamy, tahini-rich hummus is also on the menu, sometimes served as a side dish and other times as a main course, depending on customers’ wishes, Harat says.
“In American culture, when you think of hummus, it’s always a dip that goes with something before the meal,” he explains. “In Israel, you can actually go to a restaurant where all they do is hummus. They serve you a big plate of hummus with tahini and chickpeas and olive oil, and you get two pitas, maybe some pickles, a hard-boiled egg and that’s the whole meal.”
Those in the know order plates of hummus, and many of those customers, Harat says, find her basket through Israeli community groups on Facebook.
The trolley officially opened on September 19. Word of mouth spread through Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, family and friends, Harat said. Regularly, more and more customers hear about the hidden pop-up offering an amazing lunch on weekdays only.
Harat flavors and friendly service is what brings them back.
“I like this organic growth,” says Harat. “It’s the biggest compliment you can get, if someone comes back. One guy who came, he had a pita sandwich, and in the first two weeks he was here five times. That makes me the most happy, to see customers come and enjoy. I don’t think there is a greater reward.”
11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday to Friday
648 Pierson Street West