Washington may be home to virtually every type of food imaginable, but it is unlikely you will find more than one Israeli bistro that serves entirely vegetarian and vegan food without even billing itself as such.
Shouk, located on K Street near Mount Vernon Triangle in the District of Columbia, opened seven weeks ago as a casual café that serves vegetable-filled pitas along with salads and sides such as sweet potato or polenta fries with tahini.
“The reason I decided to do this is because I wanted to change how we eat,” owner Ran Nussbacher said. “Shouk is a plant-based concept. It’s based on my belief and others’ that this type of eating benefits humanity and benefits the planet.”
Nussbacher, 39, grew up in the Israeli city of Netanya, and moved to the United States for college in 1998 at age 22. Ten years later, he moved to Washington to take a position with the clean technology startup company, Opower. After six years, it was time for Nussbacher to put his business background to use for a different purpose: food.
“I grew up in a home where cooking was central and there was no such thing as going out to restaurants,” he said. “I learned to appreciate it, I learned to know it and understand flavor. Obviously growing up in Israel among the rich street food culture, it has a reliance on fresh produce and nuts and seeds. I came from a place where you could eat plant-based and it was as rich and satisfying as everything else.”
Nussbacher said that with Shouk he wanted to create a customer experience that is as “normal as ordering a pizza” — and for the most part it is. There are seven varieties of pita filled with vegetables, and customers can create their own pita sandwich as well. If you love the spicy, the sweet potato pita with harissa will give you a punch in the sinuses. And the polenta fries give you all the joys of a fried delicacy without giving you grease or guilt.
“At the micro-level, we don’t do traditional food,” he said. “The only thing on our menu that you will find on another menu is hummus. And for us that’s very small part of the menu. Everything else is using familiar flavors as well as unfamiliar flavors. There’s no falafel on the menu. There’s no baba ghanoush on the menu. If you want falafel and a kabob sandwich, there are a million places you can get that. If you want fennel with pistachio you come to us.”
Nussbacher said that while Shouk is not specifically targeting vegetarians or vegans, it has attracted substantial business so far due to the rising popularity of those trends. It’s open for lunch through dinner.
“I think there is a shift happening in our society,” he said. “Regardless of labeling, people are seeking to eat better and healthier. Part of that is that there is a recognition that incorporating plant-based food into your life is a good thing to do. Not necessarily going vegetarian or vegan, but rebalancing our diets.”
Shouk has an informal, hole-in-the-wall, feel as you walk in but is a step above a typical falafel and hummus joint, commonly found on the streets of big cities. There are large, community-style tables and benches that fill the small dining area, making the space great for Washington professionals looking for a quick-but-healthy bite on their lunch hour. A variety of products featured on shelves lining the walls, such as harissa, tahini and olive spreads are available for purchase — just as in an Israeli shuk.
“We place a premium on curating the best products out there that are ethically made,” Nussbacher said.
Many of Shouk’s spices and sauces are imported, including its tahini. Shouk makes its own harissa.