It is noteworthy, though seldom noted, that Rome’s claim to be the capital of Christianity is, you know, a little … odd. All the Passover and Easter drama — the donkey and the palm fronds, the Last Supper, the betrayal by a kiss in moonlit Gethsemane, the crucifixion, the rock mysteriously rolled away from the mouth of the tomb — was supposed to have taken place in, or near, Jerusalem, after all. Why, then, do we not find the pope there, waving to the crowds from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? One obvious part of the answer is, of course, that Rome, not Jerusalem, was the seat of the Caesars, whose honorific title, pontifex maximus, was appropriated by their successors in imperial interest, the popes (hence pontiff). Another might be that Jerusalem is a contested city, the symbolic heart of a triad of related monotheisms whose fierce and often violent competitions carry some of the sharp flavor of sibling rivalry.
When you take a seat at little Old Jerusalem Restaurant, which opened earlier this winter on an as yet unyuppified stretch of Mission, your eye is ineluctably drawn to the mural of the Old City that fills most of the restaurant’s long north wall. Yes, you think, the city on a hill, bundled within its 16th-century Ottoman walls, really is that color, a pale gold with just a slight suggestion of rose. And: Yes, there is the gilded Dome of the Rock, conspicuous in its looming centrality, at least in the mural. Jerusalem is many Jerusalems: It is the place from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to the heavens as well as the home of the Western Wall and of the pit where St. Helena claimed to have found pieces of the True Cross.
Fortunately, everyone likes falafel, the hamburger of the Middle East and the lingua franca of Palestine, a torn land desperately in need of shared joys and pleasures. You can buy falafel from street (or lane) carts all through the Old City, but if you happen to be here instead, you’ll find that Old Jerusalem’s version is pretty good, consisting of golf ball–size spheres of ground, seasoned chickpeas that are a deep, crusty bronze outside and pasty green within and just 39¢ each if you can stand your falafel naked. (A sandwich edition, with pita bread and condiments, is $4.99.) Naked falafel balls are actually a little harsh for my taste, a little dry in the mouth, but luckily the menu, while fairly brief, is rich in saucy and spreadable things that can be discreetly spooned around, whether the tahini-lemon dressing of a Jerusalem salad ($3.49) of quartered tomatoes and cucumber chunks, or the fabulous hummus that turns up as an accompaniment to many of the larger plates.
These are of variable appeal, with dryness being an intermittent issue. The best are quite fine and memorable, and in this category I would certainly put the chicken shawerma ($9.99), chunks of tender, boneless meat slow-roasted on one of those vertical spits to help retain moisture. Not far off the pace is shish taouk ($9.99), more boneless chicken chunks, grilled this time on skewers and not quite as tender or moist, though still tasty and with an appealing hint of char. For purposes of skewer grilling, the red meats hold up better, and Old Jerusalem offers both beef and lamb versions of shish kebab. The peripatetic appetite may well be most interested in the combination plate ($11.99), which offers an ensemble of skewer-grilled chicken, lamb, and beef, along with a length of grilled kifta, a kind of cilantro sausage — very tasty, but parched, we found, and in need of a sauce. (The restaurant filled with smoke shortly before this platter was presented to us. We could have been witnessing a magic act at the circus.)
So meat is hit-or-miss, but it is probably for the best that the rest of the world isn’t quite as meat-involved as we are. When we move into the field of legumes — which are cheaper and healthier than meat and, in the view of many of us, tastier and more interesting too — Old Jerusalem reliably shines. There is the fine hummus. There is also a chickpea stew called fata ($4.99), a mix of whole and puréed chickpeas mixed with tahini sauce and spooned over torn chunks of pita bread. And there is qodsiah ($4.99), an addictive mix of hummus and foul, a similarly seasoned, rust-colored paste made from (presumably dried) fava beans. All are eminently scoopable with pita bread (baskets of which, still warm from the oven, are continually refreshed) and highly compatible with the plate of dill pickles and olives that is presented shortly after the menus.
The restaurant’s signature dish takes the improbable form of a dessert. It is kunafa — "shredded wheat in goat cheese baked in syrup," says the menu card. Sounds dreadful as described, but it turns out to be a svelte square, jellyish red-orange on top, with a base layer of cheese. We took a pair of skeptical first bites but were soon won over by the mix of sour, fruit-sweet, and creamy, with a faint echo of crunch. You can get a single square for $4, and that’s plenty for two people (it’s rich), but the kunafa is also issued in larger denominations: A full sheet is $60, and there are half- and quarter-sheets available too: a triad, or trinity, of choices. SFBG
Old Jerusalem Restaurant
Daily, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
2976 Mission, SF