At one D.C. area food truck, the Nashville hot chicken sandwich has a new best friend: fried matzo ball bites. The seemingly disparate dishes share space on the menu at Schmaltz Brothers, a rare kosher kitchen on wheels based out of Silver Spring, Maryland.
“I see what’s trending in the non-kosher food world,” co-owner Yehuda Malka says. “So long as there’s no pork or shellfish, I wonder, ‘Why can’t we do that just as well?’ I want Schmaltz Brothers to feel and look like just another truck.”
The operation, which draws its name from the Yiddish word for golden, rendered chicken fat, has a version of the trendy chicken sandwich called the “Zinger.” It features a chicken thigh soaked in dill pickle brine and twice-fried in a hot batter. It gets another kick from togarashi jalapeno slaw and harissa aioli, plus more pickle slices for good measure. A fluffy, homemade challah roll holds the whole package.
Malka and co-owner Chappall Gage have been serving fresh takes on traditional Jewish food since rolling out the truck this summer. A juicy cheeseburger, for example, avoids mixing meat and dairy with a slice of vegan cheese. A new version comes slathered with horseradish mayo on a bun covered in everything bagel spice.
The truck posts a schedule of stops, including regular appearances at synagogues in the Maryland suburbs, on its Instagram page every week. It established a regular Sunday residency at the Electric Cool-Aid bar in Shaw after running a pop-up during Sukkot, a Jewish holiday that requires celebrants to eat and drink outdoors.
Another popular draw at Schmaltz Brothers is the Bubbie’s BBQ Brisket Sandwich, which combines a favorite dish of from Jewish grandmothers and pitmasters. Thick-cut slices of beef are slathered in carrot jam and a sweet concord grape steak sauce — reminiscent of Manischewitz wine — and packed into the challah roll. The matzo ball bites, quarter-sized balls based in unleavened bread crumbs, are spiked with hot honey schmaltz and served with pickled onions for acid for a snack similar to Italian arancini. Babka layered with chocolate swirls rounds out the menu.
“We want to change people’s perception of what the limits of kosher food really are,” Malka says.
Malka graduated from rabbinical school and has worked in several kosher restaurant kitchens. Gage, who runs Susan Gage Catering with his mother, met him through kosher catering events. The pair were looking to partner on a restaurant since last year. To cut down on costs, they turned to the food truck, a move that proved prescient when the novel coronavirus pandemic reached Washington. Mobility and flexibility have helped them continue operating through constantly shifting service restrictions. They’ve also been pleased to employ chefs and other workers who have been furloughed from Gage’s catering company.
There are a handful of kosher restaurants around the District, but the majority of them stick to vegetarian cuisine to more easily adhere to the dietary guidelines. Fast-casual Israeli counter Shouk, Soupergirl, Sticky Fingers bakery, and the Taim falafel shops all fall in the latter category. West End grill Char Bar is one of the few that offers meat. Little Sesame, a hummus shop co-owned by the owners of the former DGS Delicatessen, offers Israeli food but is not certified Kosher.
Beyond bringing kosher burgers to walk-up customers, Schmaltz Brothers is building a catering business that includes corporate events, Shabbat gatherings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings.
Moving forward, Malka and Gage want to expand their menu with other contemporary twists on Jewish classics. For Hanukkah, they have plans for a new twist on the old latke, but they don’t want to reveal details just yet. Next year, they plan to open a permanent space at the George Washington University Hillel that will be open to the public.