Most ethnic restaurants in San Francisco serve the food of a particular country, such as Thailand, or that of a smaller region with a distinct culture, such as Sardinia. "Middle Eastern" restaurants are a major exception to that rule: Whether the owners hail from Greece, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, or Libya, most of the time you'll find the same dishes.
To be sure, this is to some extent an innocent holdover from the Ottoman Empire, which from the 15th through the 19th century ruled most of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, resulting in a common regional cuisine that's still around today. However, our Middle Eastern restaurants also pander to local customers unaware of the distinctions among the region's various cuisines by offering familiar dishes and skipping those that might require some education or encouragement.
There's no such pandering going on at Old Jerusalem, a Palestinian place that opened in the Mission a couple of years ago. In addition to the usual suspects such as falafel, shawerma, hummus, and baba ganoush, the menu includes around 20 dishes rarely seen around here.
Mossabaha ($6.50), for example, combines extrasmooth hummus with additional tahini and olive oil for richness, whole chickpeas for texture, and hot pepper and extra lemon juice for zing. Served warm, this fabulous concoction makes the basic hummus (also $6.50) — which is already better than most places' — seem bland and boring. Another warm appetizer, ful ($6.50), is a soupy dip of cooked, dried fava beans (similar to kidney beans, but starchier and a bit bigger), both whole and mashed, with a surprising fresh, sour flavor resulting from lots of garlic, chopped hot peppers, lemon juice, and olive oil. The baba ganoush ($6.50) is also a superior version, with a nice smoky flavor from charring the eggplant on the grill, mellowed by plenty of tahini. All these appetizers come in generous portions easily shared by three or four and with lots of fresh pita bread to scoop them up.
If you order one of the above dishes or an entrée, a substantial assortment of appetizers is included in the price. You get dishes of flavorful green olives; salty pickled turnips; bakdounsia, a strong parsley-tahini dip; and spicy Turkish chile dip, a startlingly hot Middle Eastern variation on chunky salsa made with raw or just slightly cooked onions and jalapeños, tomato, and black pepper, plus a big basket of pita to scoop up the dips. Unless you're really hungry or want leftovers, ordering the above-mentioned appetizers in addition to this will probably get you more food than you want. One tasty and unusual tidbit that won't fill you up is a stuffed falafel ($1.25), a flattened ball of garbanzo-bean puree filled with sumac-spiced fried onions and pine nuts before frying.
You won't find Old Jerusalem's daily special entrées most other places. On Wednesday, there's mousakhan ($13.50, no relation to the Greek moussaka), a half roast chicken served on a semicircle of pizzalike flatbread topped with chopped onions simmered in the chicken's fat and juices and seasoned with pine nuts, herbs, and sumac. On my visit, the crisp chicken skin had a tasty spice rub, and the leg was nice and juicy, but the breast was overcooked and dry; the flatbread was the hit of this dish. On Tuesdays, there's bamia ($11.50), lamb shank braised with okra in delicately spiced tomato sauce until fork-tender, served with a big pile of rice. This mild and homey dish would be very warming on a foggy evening. Other nights' specials include maklouba (Sunday, $11.50), Arabic for "upside down," an inverted casserole of chicken, eggplant, and rice; seeniyeh (Monday, $11.50), baked chicken, potatoes, and aromatic vegetables in tahini sauce; lamb and green beans in tomato sauce (Friday, $11.50); and mansee (Saturday, $13.50), lamb, rice, and flatbread in creamy yogurt sauce. Another unusual dish available daily is fasolia ($11.50), a tomatoey stew of lamb and white beans.
Soups are another strong point. Molukhia ($11.50) is made from a green vegetable of the same name ("tossa jute," or Jew's mallow, in English) long-simmered with lamb, resulting in an intensely dark-green, slightly viscous soup with an earthy, bitter flavor — imagine a combination of nettles and okra. For a light vegetarian meal or snack, simple but good lentil soup ($4.50, à la carte) is a bargain.
The more common items are also done well. Kifta kebab ($11.95), two grilled skewers of spiced ground beef and lamb served with rice or hummus and vegetables, was juicy and flavorful. The burritolike beef and lamb shawerma lavash sandwich ($7.50, does not come with appetizers), with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and tahini, is very good, but not quite in the same league as local shawerma champ Truly Mediterranean's 100 percent lamb version.
Among the salads, the best choices are a classic yogurt and cucumber ($4.50) and a sprightly tabbouleh ($4.95) heavy on the parsley and light on bulgur and tomato. The Arabic salad ($4.50) of tomatoes and cucumber dressed with olive oil and lemon and the similar Jerusalem salad ($4.95) with tahini suffered from fairly tasteless tomatoes, and might be better when they're in season.
Old Jerusalem offers only two sweets, both great, both baked fresh daily on the premises. Kunafa, the house specialty (there's even a picture of it on the restaurant's sign), is a thin layer of delicately spiced, dense goat cheese filling topped with syrup-soaked shredded phyllo dough and toasted pistachios, served warm so the cheese is soft and buttery. Warbat is similar to the Greek galaktoboureko, a soft, almost fluffy custard between layers of phyllo. If you like your desserts rich, subtle, and barely sweet, these two items are reason enough to plan a visit.
No alcohol is served. Beverages include tea ($1.95) steeped with your choice of sage (interesting and good) or fresh mint, and Arabic-style strong, sweet coffee with cardamom. Any of these would go very nicely with the desserts.
The long, narrow dining room is brightened by murals on all surfaces of a premodern Middle Eastern city viewed through arched windows; a cozy Arab-style living room with low tables, rugs, and hookahs; and, on the ceiling, fluffy clouds in a blue sky. Lighting is pleasant and the Arabic music is quiet enough that conversation is easy. Service is very friendly and usually efficient. Be aware that you'll have to ask for the check: By Middle Eastern notions of etiquette, bringing it before you ask would be rudely rushing you out.
Old Jerusalem's combination of good food, friendly service, and reasonable prices explain the steady stream of Mission District denizens flowing in and out of the place from morning until night. The delicious, unusual dishes and special desserts make it worth a trip from any region.