One of my favorite things about traveling and living abroad are the many, many different characters I meet.
In the case of Itibar (Iti) Mendell of Medellin, Colombia his reputation proceeded him. It all started with the food. I overheard some people talking about this Colombian-Israeli guy with a restaurant in Parque Lleras section of Poblado called appropriately enough, Mendell.
I don’t know what intrigued me more, the stories of this guy’s history in the Israeli army or the incredible and unique food he cooked up for his patrons daily.
I think it was the food. By this time (after about 3 months living in Latin America) I was craving some variety to my diet and was missing the diversity of New York City’s food scene, something I took for granted for so many years.
So I visited Mendell and was surprised to see Iti and just one waiter in the place. No other customers, no other staff. Iti was not what I expected. From the stories I had heard, this guy, a veteran from the Israeli army could disarm and kill an attacker in a second and regularly risked his life with beyond crazy adrenaline filled adventure sports, etc., etc. I expected some buff, blustery guy with tattoos and a surly demeanor.
Instead I see a small, wiry, talkative and friendly fellow in the kitchen telling me what he’s going to cook for me that day (they have menus but there really is no need at Mendell’s, just ask Iti what is good that day).
I find out first hand that the food at Mendell is superb! Exactly worthy of the ravings of complete strangers who recommended the spot and more importantly, exactly what my diversity starved palette was craving.
Turns out Iti cooks his own recipes and makes everything from scratch. If you have a side of pita bread with your meal, then Iti made it and chances are from an old recipe passed down from his grandfather.
I’m no cook and certainly not a food critic (like art I know what I like) but I will say that whatever the secret, Mendell is absolutely excellent and I was hooked from my very first bite.
But I received something much more than an excellent meal at Mendell (at a very reasonable price I might add); I find through our conversation that eventing that not only was Iti an ex Israeli soldier, to my complete surprise he is an avid punk fan.
Now this I wasn’t expecting, so I ask Iti to hold off telling me about the Israeli punk scene until I can return with my video camera and document his words.
He kindly agrees and I roll back in a few days later, camera in hand and the always talkative Iti regales me with stories of his youth in Israel when he was a surfer and a punk.
Iti grew up partly in Colombia and partly in Israel. While in Israel he grew up listening to opera and classical music with his grandparents. He says he mostly identified with punk while he was in Israel with bands like The Exploited, Gogol Bordello and bands from the Spanish punk label “Pollo Records”. Some of the newer stuff he listens to includes a band called “Infected Mushroom” from Israel.
Not only was Iti a big time surfer, at one time he was a drummer in a band before he had an accident and had to give it up (I guess metal screws in your arms will do that to you).
Evidently surfing in Israel is a rough sport in more ways than one. During the interview Iti showed me where he would hide his knife for the inevitable fights that occurred among the surfers vying for territory.
As Iti says, Israel is a land of immigrants so the scene in Israel is relatively small and made up of a variety of punks from different places. Some of his first punk friends were from Russia.
It surprised me to learn that Iti was a skinhead at one time (yes, a Jewish Skinhead.. but not a Jewish Nazi skinhead.. don’t get it twisted). Turns out he shaved off his long hair because in fights people would grab his hair to throw him around. Now I assume this was before his stint in the Israeli army where Iti learned to channel that aggression in a more calculated manner. These days in addition to his restaurant, Iti teaches self defense to a variety of folks in Medellin on weekly basis.
Iti had some great parting thoughts about the philosophy of punk, what anarchy really means and the relationship of things like capitalism to punk.
I’m going to save those gems for the documentary “Punktology” as I’m pretty sure I could never do it justice here in mere words.
I hope to get to Israel some day soon and witness the punk scene first hand, but in the meantime, talking to Iti made me feel like I was there already and in the process I had one of the best meals I’ve eaten since I’ve been living in Latin America.
If you happen to be in Medellin (or Israel he has a location there as well) and you can scrape together a few mil pesos, shekels or dollars then do yourself and your taste buds a favor and head over to Mendell and get not only a great meal, but some great conversation with Iti.
He’s got a pretty good collection of punk music too, some I bet you’ve never heard before so ask him to put some on for you. But whatever you do, don’t piss him off… I have a feeling you might not like him when he’s angry!