Not by bread alone

Pan con Manteca delights with its innovative approach to Latin cuisine.

Pan con Manteca (photo credit: AFIK GABAI)
Pan con Manteca
(photo credit: AFIK GABAI)
One short block of a narrow street in the Lewinsky Market area in Tel Aviv, is now home to two new eateries that serve food unlike any other you will find in Israel. And yet they are very different places. The upscale, monochromatic Opa (reviewed in The Jerusalem Post on Dec. 12, 2018) is exclusively vegan, while right across the street, the more colorful and informal Pan con Manteca has only two vegan dishes on its entire menu. 
Pan con Manteca is identifiable not only by its Spanish name, but also its lively, fun music. The place is small enough to be considered intimate. But don’t count on being able to conduct a quiet conversation, given the decibel level of the music and the general noise level when the restaurant fills up. 
Asi, the owner of Pan con Manteca, knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant – he is also the proprietor of Babi 106, a popular gastropub in north Tel Aviv. But his latest venture is the realization of long-time dream: a welcoming restaurant that serves food that reminds him of his roots. Even its name evokes his childhood. 
“Pan con manteca means bread and butter,” Asi explains. “My mother used to say: ‘Put pan con manteca on the table and people will come and eat.’”
Naturally, pan con manteca (NIS 24) is prominent on the restaurant’s menu. Its incarnation here is toasted sourdough bread, served with soft butter, a mild garlic spread with almonds, and a green pepper spread that resembles schug, but is not nearly as spicy.  
There are three specialty cocktails (NIS 44) and a pleasant house red wine (NIS 29). We enjoyed both Pan’s Mojito – the classic rum and mint drink flavored with essence of verbena – and Tequila a Oro, with orange, lime and jalapeño syrup. 
The menu comprises three sections: Chicos (NIS 12-22), First Courses (NIS 32-58) and Main Courses (NIS 56-98). The dishes – all made for sharing – reflect the cuisine of Spain and Latin America as interpreted by Chef Carlos, who hails from Mexico City.
CHICOS ARE small plates of appetizers that are rotated daily. On the evening of our visit they included a rectangular fish cake with corn aioli, white fish ceviche, padron peppers on queso fresco, and chorizo with cubed potato. Each and every one was excellent and would have made fine first courses.  
Next came cactus salad, made with nopales imported from Mexico exclusively for Pan con Manteca. Nopales are prized for their anti-inflammatory properties, and this salad of cactus strips with onion, tomato, avocado mousse and manchego cheese is a delicious way of eating the healthy vegetable.  
Huevos del abuelo (lit., “grandpa’s eggs”) is soft-boiled eggs seasoned with herbs and garlic oil on a bed of crispy yucca chips. Rarely will you encounter such an unusual juxtaposition of textures, nor one as tasty. 
The next dish continued to surprise: noodles cooked in crab stock, topped with cracklings – made from chicken skin, substituting for pork chicharrones – and served with avocado and crême fraîche. The deliberately overcooked noodles were drenched in the richest crab bisque imaginable, moderated by the ripe avocado, while the cracklings provided welcome crunch. 
Our first main course was calamares con frijoles: calamari atop a bed of black beans cooked in chorizo oil. This inspired combination of earth and sea elevates the lowly bean and simple squid into something remarkable.
Finally, we sampled the chorizo verde, or green chorizo, so named not because of its color, but because of the mélange of green herbs used in seasoning the sausage. Both this chorizo and the one in the appetizer section are the result of collaborations with master charcutier Alan Talmor, and both reflect his artisanal quality. This zesty sausage was complemented perfectly by a moistening, creamy purée of root vegetables.
There are three desserts, which will be explained by your waiter. The choice is not easy. The classic churros, those Spanish crullers that are becoming commonplace in Tel Aviv, are served here with an exquisite dipping sauce of Mexican chocolate enhanced by chili and cinnamon.
These compete with a Basque-style San Sebastián cheesecake, and Mexican flan. The former – enriched by a pinch of saffron and a spoonful of hibiscus marmalade – was new to me, and superb, while the latter, so often banal, was a light, custardy masterpiece accented with vanilla and caramel. 
Not since both Cerveceria and Totuma closed their doors have we had access to such creativity in turning out Latin American delicacies. We can only say, “Bienvenido!”  
Pan con Manteca
Not kosher
HaHalutzim 3, Tel Aviv
Mon-Sat: 7 p.m.-midnight
Tel: 03-775-4141 

The writer was a guest of the restaurant.