If you walked by and looked in, it must have been quite a sight. Three tables along the storefront windows at Tatte Bakery & Cafe in Harvard Square were all eating shakshuka. There they were: Big skillets of spicy tomato-pepper-onion sauce, an egg poached in the bright red mishmash, each pan set on a sturdy board with three thick slices of toasted challah.
We had no idea who the people were beside us, but it was a little like passing someone driving a car exactly like yours. We knew we had something in common. We all love this dish. A young woman to our right, a Harvard student, told us she comes to this Tatte location three times a week for shakshuka (thanks to the Bank of Mom and Dad?).
Shakshuka has taken the town by storm. And not just this town. It’s all over New York, Washington, D.C., London, and Tel Aviv, where it was brought by Tunisian and Libyan immigrants in the 1950s with the mass migration of North African Jews to Israel. Tatte owner Tzurit Or, who was raised in Tel Aviv, and is half Moroccan and half Polish, says that shakshuka wasn’t the wildly popular dish in her homeland that it is today. But in her own home, it was made on the spur of the moment. “You opened the fridge and created a dish from anything you had left — and cracked eggs into it,” says the former Israeli film producer.
The beauty of these eggs is that while they poach in the sauce the whites just set and the centers are still runny, so when you poke them lightly, the golden yolk spills into its chunky, spicy tomato base. It’s stunning and demands a spoon, which is how Or eats it, and how the people at our surrounding tables did too. The challah toast is an ideal pusher to get more on the spoon and later to scrape the little skillet clean.
Tatte’s traditional shakshuka ($12.50), with a bell pepper, onion, and San Marzano tomato sauce, is now joined by a succulent lamb meatball version ($14.50), in which spicy little rounds in the sauce are cooked with the sweet and hot pickled cherry peppers called peppadews, and spoonfuls of spicy labne, strained Middle Eastern yogurt. The dish is mildly garlicky, and scented with turmeric, sumac, a lemony ground red berry, and harissa, the spicy North African chile paste. There’s a lot going on in this one remarkable pan. (Shakshuka is served till 11:30 a.m. most days; available all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday).
The dish, which roughly means “mixed,” has many kin. Turks prepare menemen, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and peppers, which is very much like French piperade. Italians make “eggs in Purgatory,” in which, as you can imagine, eggs cook in a fiery tomato sauce. The Moroccan comfort food Or knows from her childhood is probably related to Tunisian chakchouka, another common spelling for the dish.
Tatte also offers a sweet potato and bacon shakshuka in cream sauce ($13), and though Or doesn’t eat bacon herself, she can appreciate how much her clientele likes it.
Or came to the United States in 2003 and started selling baked goods she learned from her mother at Boston farmers’ markets. From a single place in Brookline, she has expanded to seven locations. Fenway opened in October and an eighth in Back Bay is expected in January. In 2016, St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co. bought a majority stake in Tatte, and now Or works with Panera founder Ron Shaich. Earlier this year, Shaich sold Panera to the European investment group JAB Holding Co. (which also owns Keurig Green Mountain and Peet’s Coffee & Tea).
“It’s a massive benefit to be able to hire whoever we need and want, the most qualified people, and we can relocate people to Boston,” says Or. All Tattes (the name is what Or’s daughter calls her grandmother) have the same light, airy feel, even though they’re usually packed with customers. Funky custom chandeliers hang above communal tables and the pastry case is stacked with inviting confections.
If you’ve never tasted Tatte’s chocolate rose, a coiled piece of babka in a muffin cup, you’re missing something. Nibble on one after you place your shakshuka order, pounce on an open table, and wait for your skillet. Then look to the left and look to the right, and see if you’ve got three in a row. Yes or no, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Tatte Bakery & Cafe locations in Boston are at 70 Charles St., 617-723-5555; 1352 Boylston St., 617-366-1800. In Cambridge at 318 Third St., 617-354-4200; 101 Main St., 617-577-1111; 1288 Massachusetts Ave., 617-441-4011; 205 Broadway, 617-494-8700; and 1003 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-232-2200; www.tattebakery.com.Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.