In this city of neighborhoods, everyone's got that one place: It's so close to your house you could stand flat-footed on your porch and peg the front door with a pebble, but you rarely ever visit. It might be due to a bad experience. Or loyalty to a competitor. It could be something as mundane as hours of operation. Many times, there's just no responsible explanation ó you just don't go.
For me, a resident of Graduate Hospital for nearly four years, that place has been La Va. I can count my past visits to the café, wedged on the corner of 21st and South for as long as I've lived here, on one hand. The La Colombe coffee's great, the staff is friendly, the couches are cushy and the tall windows make for primo people-watching ó and yet I've never made a habit out of stopping in. If pressed to provide a reason, I would venture to say it has something to do with the proclivities of the many keyboard-clacking laptop devotees who congregate here ó when you open the door, their tired pupils tend to leap from their screens and onto you en masse, in the same way rent-a-cops eyeball sticky-fingered children as they skulk through the CD aisle. It's odd.
But after eating through a hunk of co-owner Victor Agivís menu, Iím now more than willing to swap stares with these folks ó maybe I'll even wave hello. The Israeli's wife, Liron, deals with the coffee, but the eats are his. And what eats they are; I'm not sure Iíve had more flavorful Israeli food, priced in this manner (everythingís under $10), in Philly.
Start with the shakshuka, the bright, filling tomato stew whose sneaky heat is cut by runny eggs, their yolks gradually hardening into diaphanous hunks that resemble amber ó amber you can scoop up with the torn end of a baguette. Burekas, from afar, could be mistaken for Super Pretzels, but after your first chomp through the glossy crust leaves your chin covered in a smattering of phyllo shards, it's clear these mashed potato-stuffed wonders would scream fire if brought within 300 yards of yellow mustard. (Other fillings include Bulgarian feta, mushrooms and spinach.)
The chicken schnitzel comes in both sandwich and platter form; the platter preparation sees juicy, lightly breaded breast-meat cutlets, strong with the nutty crunch of sesame, over rice, with simple sides of cucumber salad and hummus. That latter dip is something to behold, too, its creamy, clingy glory the apparent result of a secret process involving a lot of ice and one badass blender.
The most interesting Middle Eastern specialty on La Vaís menu is available just once a week ó jachnoon, a Yemenite Sabbath specialty Liron grew up eating in Israel, involves sweet brown dough and eggs baked slow and low in an airtight metal pot for up to half a day. The jachnoon, which chews like a tortilla, comes out roguishly twisted, like a rung-out washcloth, with sides of grated tomato and schug, a sinus-clearing Yemenite hot chili paste. Liron says she canít start her Saturday morning without it. A couple more visits to my new neighborhood haunt, and I may start feeling the same way.