On Tuesday night about a dozen cars were parked in front of Taste of Tel Aviv, the strip-mall spot whose name has changed a lot in the last couple years (My Pita, Pita Bites, Kosher Bite) but who has garnered a loyal crew of customers. Surrounded by dark houses and businesses in the Westbury area of Houston, the Israeli street food restaurant was filled with diners, its neon open sign shining bright into the powerless city.
Located in a small sub-neighborhood in Westbury, sandwiched between Hillcroft and Braeswood, Taste of Tel Aviv (as owner Gabi Algrably renamed it last August) is one of the only restaurants in Houston that can claim that it stayed open throughout the storm and its immediate aftermath, as of Wednesday. They were open Sunday even as the record-breaking winter storm began sweeping in, feeding folks from their regular menu, which includes shawarma, the Israeli sandwich called sabich, shakshuka, falafel, and sushi (yes, sushi, because it's a lighter appetizer that includes fresh ingredients, says Algrably). And although Algrably's house hasn't had power since Monday, his business has stayed brightly lit and warm. Thus, Algrably has done the only thing he could do during this unprecedented crisis of winter and the state electric grid: He's worked.
On Monday the restaurant closed early so that Algrably could move his family to the store since it still had heat. But then, while making pizza for his family at the bakery he owns next door, he noticed people stopping and getting in line. So, he decided to open Monday evening, serving homemade pizza to whoever came by.
When they woke up Tuesday morning, the restaurant still had power, so by lunch time it was clear that Algrably should just keep going as long as possible. By the time he opened, when the focus shifted from icy conditions to power outages and frozen pipes, Taste of Tel Aviv was featuring an abbreviated menu, mostly Kosher meat dishes with homemade pita, laffa, and hamburger buns.
But even with that smaller menu, customers have been gratefully finding space in the restaurant, without much, if any, complaining. With more than one million without power, just being open has been a gift for cold and hungry Houstonians. Folks have pulled off the road just to come in for food. Despite the big crowds (Tuesday especially was a constant rush), they've managed with a skeleton crew that has included the Algrably kids—ages 4, 6, 7, 11, and 13—who have either been hanging out in the restaurant or helping out by making pita and other odd jobs.
Inside the restaurant on Wednesday, customers yelled across tables to one another about their power outage ills. "We're out of hamburger," shouted Algrably to a server pacing from table to counter. Algrably was chipper and moved quickly despite probably not sleeping much over the past few days.
As a reminder of the reality we still live in, most guests wore masks even when seated. And Algrably, one of the hardest-working restaurant owners in Houston this week, was clear about what's been driving him at such a brisk pace all week, and it's not been about the money.
"We're here just to serve the community," said Algrably. "I hope people realize that we're just giving food to people needing it."