Old Jerusalem has been around for 11 years on a rather distant corner of Mission Street, and I think the first time I tried it was perhaps during its first year. I loved walking by and seeing the older Middle Eastern men sitting at a table outside, sipping from glasses of hot tea. We liked it, but weren’t so thoroughly enamored that we had to go back. However, recently I’d been hearing a lot of people give glowing praise to its food, and I knew it was time to return.
We have more than a few Middle Eastern restaurants in this city, and all of them have a different focus, a provenance. Old Jerusalem’s is Palestinian. All the food is halal, which means that the animals were treated in such a way as to be in compliance with Islamic dietary laws. These laws prescribe the types of food allowed to be eaten, the method of animal slaughter, the processing of the meat, and so on. It also means that no alcohol is sold here.
Murals of the Holy Land flank the long narrow space. This is casual dining, but the atmosphere is warm and inviting. When we first went many years ago, the place was rather empty. On both our recent visits, the restaurant was bustling, and you could tell these were regulars, people who come here often and are treated like family.
As soon as you sit down, complimentary mezze (small plates, appetizers) are set before you: fluffy and light, warm pita bread, although not baked in-house, made with an old family recipe from the owner’s mother); bakdounis bi tahini, a parsley/tahini sauce, which I immediately slathered on anything and everything edible; a spicy Turkish chili, tomato and onion dip; cracked green olives; and – my favorite – pickled turnips. The turnips are a lovely pinkish color, dense and meaty, tangy and earthy. I was so happy to be greeted with such festive abundance.
But was this enough for us to start off with? Hell no. I’ve had plenty of falafel in my day, but never a stuffed falafel.
Brought to the table just out of the fryer, it was super crispy on the outside, fragrant and cloud-like on the inside. Stuffed with a wonderful mixture of grilled onions, spices, and toasted pine nuts, this was the best falafel-like thing I’ve ever had. I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture of the inside, but we devoured it too quickly.
I asked our server, a very pleasant young woman, what I should order, the Kalaya or the egg and meat dish. I’m a sucker for anything with egg in it, and this was billed as lamb and egg together. What a heavenly combination! However, the server immediately said, “Kalaya, of course!” and rolled her eyes in a swooning motion. How could I say no to that?
Essentially, Kalaya is a braised meat dish, very rustic and homey, as you can see. In this case, lamb is braised in a chunky, spiced tomato broth. It came to the table so hot and steamy, it seemed almost to have no flavor at first. Once it cooled down, however, the flavors in the sauce were complex and layered, with delicious, tender bites of lamb. Even better once I added some hot sauce. It would have been a perfect dish over rice, but I was full after so much pita anyway.
The BF ordered the Fetta (not to be confused with the cheese) with meat.
Talk about comfort food! “Fetta” is a warming dish of bite-size pieces of pita bread mixed into a silky bath of hummus, where it becomes almost like a porridge, and topped with meat – lamb, in this case, seasoned with sumac (the dried, ground-up berries of a sumac bush, which tastes bright and lemony), cinnamon, and cardamom. I think this may well have been my favorite dish of both our visits, even though the BF ate most of it. Next time, it’s mine.
We were way too full to order dessert, even the famed kunafa – a cheesy pastry drenched in rose water which would totally be up my alley.
On our second visit, we were greeted with the same mezze, except no turnips! I looked around at the other tables, and no one else had them either. Yes, this mollified me slightly.
We over-ordered. As usual.
I make baba ganoush at home, and maybe mine isn’t typical, and certainly not authentic, but I like a nice garlicky taste to it. Old Jerusalem’s was a bit underseasoned for me, but the texture was right and I loved the heavy drizzle of good, fruity olive oil.
Of course, we had to have another stuffed falafel. It truly is amazing. My first nibble this time was almost like biting into a piece of crispy yet tender fried chicken. If all vegetarian food tasted this good, animals everywhere could breathe a sigh of relief when they saw me coming.
For my main, I decided to go all out and get the meat combination plate (there is a vegetarian version too.) The meats were shish: grilled lamb chunks; kifta kabob, spiced ground beef formed around flat metal skewers, also grilled; and shish taouk, grilled and spiced chicken.
Looks amazing, doesn’t it? Sadly, the lamb and ground beef were completely dry, and rather flavorless. So disappointing. The chicken was better, had a bit of juice to it, but still not great. I wondered if perhaps these had been cooked earlier in the day and then reheated. A shame. The hummus, however, was wonderful. Thick and creamy, and again, drizzled with a lovely olive oil, sprinkled with sumac. Definitely some of the best hummus I’ve had. But the absolute star of my plate was the turmeric rice. You can order rice, or hummus, or both, with most dishes. I come from a family that eats a lot of rice, and Old Jerusalem’s was just revelatory. It was buttery, almost nutty, and served with a grilled tomato, the way Persian rice dishes are. You cut up the tomato into the rice, which soaks up all the wonderful smoky juices. I could easily make a meal of that rice, a stuffed falafel, and a salad (which would be nice to try next time!) Too bad about the meat, but I’m hoping that was a fluke.
The BF ordered the hummus with shawerma – a mixture of ground lamb and beef – with olive oil and spices.
Do you see that wall surrounding the meat? That’s hummus! Thick and spreadable, like caulk, but fabulous tasting. The meat was a tad dry, but better than my dish.
I really wanted to try the Palestinian specialty Mousakhan, as I’ve made something similar to it at home. Here, it’s half a chicken roasted over flatbread, with onions, pine nuts, and sumac. The chicken juices soak into the bread and make a wonderful, soppy, delightful mess. Next time.
Once again, we were much too full for desserts. There are other dishes I’d like to try here, too. I saw a couple order French fries with their meals, which actually looked really good. The lentil soup is calling my name, too.
A great way to round out your evening is with a visit to Samirami Imports next door after dinner – a store chock-full of all imaginable Middle Eastern delights. You’ll be sated but curious, and that’s always a good way to leave a meal.
2976 Mission St. (near the corner of 26th Street)
San Francisco, CA 94110