Twenty years ago Ahmad Nasser arrived from Ramallah. He quickly fell in love with San Francisco but still longed for the flavors of home. Of course, there were Middle Eastern restaurants in San Francisco that he enjoyed but nothing tasted exactly like home. He was committed to bring that nostalgic essence to his restaurant, Old Jerusalem, on Mission and 26th streets when he opened in 2005.
“I knew that if I made the food of my home everyone would love it,” Nasser says.
After years as a regular customer Hajem Almukad accepted Nasser’s request to join him at the restaurant. They shared a love for Levantine cuisine and quite naturally, the two decided to pair up to open the business.
Before moving to the Bay Area, Nasser had worked at several restaurants in Ramallah. He had performed every task from washing dishes to cooking.
“That is a secret for success. Everyone must be skilled at every job. In particular everyone must know how to cook,” Nasser says.
“Even Hajem is learning to cook.” Nasser says gesturing toward his partner. Almukdad acknowledges with a nod.
Almukdad had initially worked in San Francisco as a limousine driver and a clerk in a liquor store “It was good work but didn’t center on what I valued,” Almukdad says. “I longed for the traditions of home.”
“You see this hummus?” Almukdad asks.
“It reminds me of the chickpeas we raised on our family’s farm. They fed us and put clothes on our backs. When I smell our fresh pita, I remember, as a little boy, sitting next to my mother as she prepared bread at home,” he adds.
“Our meals were simpler than what is served here, but share the same culinary sense,” Almukdad says.
At Old Jerusalem we serve the “flavors of a night out,” he adds. These traditional Levantine dishes present the regional influences of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey.
“As I watch Achmad’s cousin, Ali, prepare the meals I am reminded of my time together with my family,” Almukdad says. “Our life was physically demanding but forged many fond memories. My family had 200 sheep tended by a Bedouin herder, two cows, and 40 to 50 hectares of chickpeas. I remember how the sun, soil and the thorny chickpeas allowed my father’s hands to tell a tale of hard honest work. Long days in the fields made every meal a very special time. “
The olive crop is a gift from past generations, Nasser says. There is an old saying about the ancient Palestinian olive trees, ‘they planted so we could eat,’” Nasser says.
“These olives are crushed by hand between two rocks. This is the best way to cure olives. The only place we can get these olives is from home. We import them, ” Nasser says explaining that the olive harvest happens right after the first rain of autumn.
“When I taste the olives, the special Palestinian olives, I am taken home,” Nasser says. “That is why we serve them.”
At Old Jerusalem, all the dishes are made according to traditional recipes and ingredients are Halal. “Animals are raised with a tradition that treats them with kindness until their final moment,” Almukdad says.
Old Jerusalem presents a variety of traditional Middle Eastern fare. Their Levantine specialties are what sets the restaurant apart.
Included on the menu is Kalaya, a lamb and tomato stew filled with flavor and a hint of curry; a lentil soup, a common dish made to creamy perfection; Mousakhan, a popular dish during the olive harvest, is roasted chicken on bed of Sumac and pine nuts with a slightly lemon astringent taste, served over Taboon flat bread made by Nasser’s wife. There’s also the stuffed falafel with sumac, pine nuts and fried onions.
There are so many options to choose from, the best way to sample dishes is to visit in a group and have someone order something different — then share.
For desert, the Kunafa, a sweet goat cheese dessert made from scratch, is a must-try. It’s said that a physician noticed that some of the princes were having great difficulty fasting during Ramadan. So he made Kunafa so they could eat before sunrise and remain satiated all day.
No matter what you try on the menu, the attention to detail is what makes the dish stand out.
“Attending to even the smallest detail is the only way to create the flavors I remember,” Nasser says.
2976 Mission Street