30 East 13th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n 5th and University; map); 212-510-7881; taboonette.com
Service: Friendly counter service
Setting: Clean, welcoming but bare-bones
Must-Haves: Shakshuka, calamari
Cost: Everything under $12; most plates around $8-10, sandwiches $4-8
Grade: For quick-service pita fare, A-
When I think through all the many, many new restaurants in New York there are to write about, I break them down into categories. "This would be good for A Sandwich a Day." "This might be a great chef interview." "This should be a full, formal review."
On first glance, Taboonette, which opened in March near Union Square, seemed like an obvious Sandwich a Day candidate. Uptown restaurant (Taboon, after 7-8 years in Hell's Kitchen) opens downtown sandwich shop, with 12+ pita sandwiches and a ton of sides on the menu? Sounds like a promising lunch spot to us.
So off intrepid intern Molly went to Taboonette, brought two sandwiches and a rice plate back to headquarters—and watched as forks flew, hands grabbed pitas, last bites were fought over, and the whole haul disappeared in about four minutes.
Yeah, it was pretty awesome.
So we went back a few hours later to order just about everything on the menu.
The takeaway? Taboonette is priced like any old stuff-in-a-pita lunch counter. But across the board, their sandwiches and plates are imaginative, boldly spiced, and pretty damn delicious.
The sandwich that first won us over was the Shakshuka ($5.95). We love the traditional dish of eggs baked in a spiced tomato sauce, but Taboonette's version translated well to pita form. The sauce had ample chunks of tomato, deeply flavored with garlic, onion, and harissa; it's well-calculated to be satisfying and sloppy, but not too wet to soak through the pita. (Which is excellent, by the way: thick but airy, purchased half-baked and finished in their taboon.)
That and the Sabeech ($6.00)—both these sandwiches are served as an all-day breakfast—fared well at Serious Eats Headquarters, despite the 20-minute subway ride, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. (I've seen plenty of pita practically liquify after 10.) Substantial strips of eggplant were cooked to a satisfying squish that clearly had help from oil, but they weren't absolutely saturated in it; the sliced egg and rich tahini fill it out. I have no idea why this particular Israeli salad seems so vibrant when so many others are so dull. But with crisp cucumber and bright red tomatoes in a neat dice, coated just so in the bright lemon-olive oil dressing, they integrate into every sandwich elevate it—they aren't stray veggies tossed on top, as Israeli salad often seems to me.
We'd opt for either over the Steak and Egg, which was plenty satisfying (and hey, a sirloin sandwich for $7?) but whose steak was cooked pretty far past our liking. Still, we liked the pairing with creamy labneh, the runny-middled egg, and that bright chopped salad.
The rest of the menu can be ordered in a pita, on a rice plate, or in a huge, floppy laffa wrap. Just be ready with a fork and knife if you order the last option. The Chicken Shawarma (laffa, $10.95), is nowhere near contained; but if you're good with "pile of steaming meat with sauce-soaked bread nibbled up after," it's all fine. The chicken was one of the least subtly spiced things on the menu—cumin really dominated, with the turmeric and paprika barely there—and it's not carved from a spit. But the individual pieces of meat were nicely seared and incredibly juicy, made even more substantial by tiny crisped-up bits of roasted Yukon gold potatoes. Hummus and tahini bind it all together, with pickles and that chopped salad adding acidity and contrast. I'd like to try this one in a pita.
As classics go, we preferred the Kebab (pita, $8.95), which hit an optimal balance between ground lamb and beef—gamy but not overwhelming, bright with mint and parsley, and juicy as you could wish. We liked the inclusion of grilled eggplant and, again, the Israeli salad. These kinds of sandwiches are reliant on a few basic ingredients; but the salad's bright acidity made just about everything, even meat-laden bread bombs, feel light and balanced.
Well, except the Pulled Pork ($8.50), but who needs balance when you have a pile of juicy pork shoulder topped with chicharrones? This one we appreciated as a platter (over jasmine rice with cumin, garlic, and cilantro), the better to appreciate the pork—marinated for a day with allspice, nutmeg, garlic then slow-cooked for eight hours—and the chicharrones too.
But the one platter I'd come back and order again in a second is the Calamari ($8.50). Quite a pile of them appear, the little rings sautéed in what Taboonette calls their chimichurri— cilantro, jalapeño, parsley, olive oil—and they emerge golden-edged but still tender, even better dipped in an impossibly rich yogurt sauce. The plate is heaped with that spiced jasmine rice and hummus. Of course there are all sorts of meat-on-rice platters you can get for $8 in the city, but how often do they come with tender calamari?
And we can't resist carb-on-carb fests like the Golden Potato ($7.25), the pita stuffed with baked potato. It really takes on that roasted flavor, and the skins are crisped up with salt and olive oil, so there's a bit of a french fry effect going on; arugula gives it a bit of balance, sour cream binds, and sumac brightens. (It's far from bland, but it's a sandwich I liked better with a heaping spoonful of their schoog, a jar of which sits on every table, made of jalapeños, olive oil, and cilantro.)
The sandwiches and platters succeed because they're classics that are intelligently spiced, thoughtfully executed, and made just a bit novel; the sides are much the same way. Haloumi Salad ($7.75) sports thick slices of golden-browned goat's milk haloumi cheese that squeaks between the teeth; it's close to too salty, but doesn't cross that line—that is, just as haloumi should be. The predictable-sounding Beet Salad ($7.75) has arugula and onion and creamy clumps of goat cheese, sure, but also crunchy clusters of pistachio candied in the taboon, and a surprising roasted anise and fennel seed vinaigrette. (The overall effect was a bit sweet for some, but I loved it.) Moroccan Carrot Salad ($4.00) was less successful. The combination of mint, orange blossom water, and nigella seeds made for a cooling, floral, almost menthol bite, but the texture was undone by floppy shreds of carrot.
Beer Battered Veggies ($3.65) could've come straight from a sports bar, but the kind of sports bar that knows how to fry: these puffy, crunchy vegetables (including potato, cauliflower, and okra) in a chili-laced batter are a joy to crunch through, better with the horseradish-sour cream mix they're served with for dunking. And Roasted Corn ($2.75) is a vaguely Mediterranean take on Mexican elotes, but here it's slathered in a spicy cilantro mayo before showers of sesame and parmesan. I didn't know I wanted the nutty crunch of sesame on this kind of corn, but it totally works.
That's what I found most interesting about Taboonette—that its menu covers the familiar grounds of shawarma and kebabs and labneh, but it's not afraid to venture into other territories: the street corn, calamari, and pulled pork with chicharron. And that when they do, they're successful. And all this at pretty standard pita sandwich prices, in a neighborhood not exactly saturated with good lunch options? We'll be back, Taboonette.