Chef Tal Caspi of Aviv, Portland's vegan Israeli restaurant. Chef Tal Caspi of Aviv, Portland's vegan Israeli restaurant. Chef Tal Caspi of Aviv, Portland's vegan Israeli restaurant. (Photo: Aviv)

At Portland's Aviv, Israeli cuisine goes green

Chef Tal Caspi's eclectic vegan menu showcases his Mediterranean, Mexican and Argentinian influences.

Chef Tal Caspi of Portland, Oregon, is filling a unique niche at Aviv, a restaurant that serves plant-based Israeli food with Mexican and Argentinian influences.

The groundbreaking chef wasn’t always vegan; in 2014, his popular Gonzo food truck offered meat and vegetable options. But he said he always had an issue eating meat, and at a certain point, “I decided to be the person I want to be, live the life I want to live, and harming animals was not a part of that.” Caspi went vegetarian in his youth several times, but felt like it wasn’t enough.

I definitely relate, although becoming fully vegan was never something on my radar – even with close family members who made the switch years ago and never looked back. And they’re not alone – statistics say the number of vegans grew 600% between 2014 and 2017. With the explosion of vegan hot spots around the U.S. and in Israel, it seems the numbers have grown even more in 2018.

beet salad at Aviv The beet salad at Aviv is served with fresh pita. (Photo: Aviv)

Born in Israel to Argentinian parents, and growing up in California with a Mexican best friend, Caspi was exposed to several different cuisines – and he says they all influence his cooking. His best friend Eddie Rico was vegetarian for 20 years, and Eddie’s mom Stella Rodriguez taught Caspi some Mexican cooking techniques. Aviv’s brunch menu has a huge Mexican influence, like Tal’s Chilaquiles made with tofu feta, misozuke, tortillas, tomatillos, harissa tahini and cilantro.

Smothered bourekas Smothered bourekas at Aviv. (Photo: Aviv)

Caspi says the biggest challenge in creating delicious vegan Israeli food is actually what he likes best. “We don’t really source the things we use, and it pushes us to make more things from scratch. I enjoy that because it allows for a lot more creativity.” He works with Aviv’s sous chef Jared Russel to collaborate on new flavors and dishes.

Israeli scotch egg Aviv's version of the Scotch egg includes a falafel crunch. (Photo: Aviv)

The menu at Aviv features entrees like the jackfruit brisket, Israeli scotch egg, beet salad, shawarma fries and the smoked carrot lox bagel.

Aviv’s mouth-watering house-made desserts include sticky sweet baklava, walnut basboosa, and several flavors of vegan ice cream. Caspi plans to open a separate vegan ice cream shop in early 2019 together with Aviv’s baker, Kristin Stanchfield.

Aviv's vegan ice cream. Aviv's vegan ice cream. (Photo: Aviv)

The combination of Israeli vegan fare is definitely unique, and Caspi doesn’t know of any other chefs in the U.S. doing anything similar. I asked him why he thinks the vegan movement is so big in Israel, some say even more than in the U.S. His response? “So much of traditional Israeli food is already vegan – you can always eat falafel, a plethora of salads, hummus, tahini – so it’s an easier transition than in the U.S., where the cuisine tends to be heavy on animal products.” Caspi adds that becoming vegan is particularly popular with Israeli youth, who are drawn to the idea of not harming animals, and protecting the environment.

lox and capers on a bagel Who doesn't love a generously topped lox bagel? (Photo: Aviv)

Tel Aviv boasts a new eatery named Sultana that offers vegan shawarma, prepared by chef Harel Zakaim. Caspi says he may consider selling vegan Israeli street food in the future, including vegan shawarma (prepared with seitan) along with all the traditional fixings – amba, tahini, fresh pitas, salads and pickled vegetables.

Caspi sells three types of hummus to local supermarkets in surrounding states under the name Gonzo – OG (traditional), harissa, and schug. Caspi sells three types of hummus to local supermarkets in surrounding states under the name Gonzo – OG (traditional), harissa, and schug. (Photo: Aviv)

In a nod back to his earlier food truck, Caspi sells three types of hummus to local supermarkets in surrounding states under the name Gonzo – OG (traditional), harissa and schug. He plans to launch a few more flavors, and at least one will have a Mexican influence with hatch salsa in the middle.

My guess is it won’t be long before Caspi and Zakaim are joined by many others combining two culinary trends that are here to stay – Israeli and vegan restaurants. Aviv’s most popular dish, Enchanted Forest, sums up the concept perfectly. It includes morel mushrooms, fiddleheads, chard, harif, served with couscous and topped with labneh.

Flavors and textures abound in plant-based foods, but it takes a talented chef with multi-cultural influences to turn those plants into sumptuous dishes.

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At Portland's Aviv, Israeli cuisine goes green
Chef Tal Caspi's eclectic vegan menu showcases his Mediterranean, Mexican and Argentinian influences.