It was a relief to finally step off the plane, not simply to stretch my legs after the lengthy flight, but to have finally arrived in the famed Holy Land. Having never been abroad up to that point, my excitement was mounting. After all, I had, at long last, landed in the nation that serves as an important holy center for three of the world’s main religions. The energy among my Birthright group was palpable.
So it was to be two weeks in Israel, the first of which would be spent with Birthright, the second, an extension, (which in hindsight was certainly a wise decision), to meet and stay with my extended family, most of whom I’d never met before in person. As to be expected, my fourteen days in that marvelous country were a whirlwind of adventure, in which I scaled mountains, explored vast cities, visited museums, beheld ancient sites, participated in Jewish religious ceremonies and, of course, sampled a variety of rare and exotic delicacies. I can honestly say that I tasted more international fare in two weeks than I have in my entire life living in a place as diverse and cosmopolitan as Los Angeles, and that’s saying something.
Israel’s location makes it the perfect breeding ground for its plethora of culinary delights. Located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, it stands at a crossroads between Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the interior of Asia. As one might expect, these rich and diverse cultures all coalesce in Israel, making for a veritable cornucopia of ingredients and flavors. While I tasted countless dishes at many different establishments, here are some of the best restaurants that I’d highly recommend visiting while in Israel.
1. Hummus HaCarmel (HaCarmel Street 11, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel)
This little gem is hidden away within the Shuk HaCarmel, a labyrinthine outdoor marketplace in the heart of the Florentin District of Tel Aviv. With the Shuk’s dizzying array of sounds, colors, and smells, this eating establishment can be hard to find. However, I quickly learned that Hummus HaCarmel is something of a local favorite, and simply asking any vendor will lead you in the right direction. Housed in a tiny converted mid 19th Century synagogue, dining is a unique experience. The seats are the former pews, and the part of the wall that held the Torah ark now displays the menu. The house special (the hummus HaCarmel) is rich but not heavy, delicious, and best shared. Made of the finest ingredients, selected with care every morning from the Shuk itself, it makes for an authentic taste of Israel, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It’s also one of the more affordable eateries within the marketplace, and well worth the search!
2. Azura (Haeshkol 4, Jerusalem, Israel)
Never had I tasted (or, for that matter, had any previous knowledge) of Iraqi food before traveling to Israel. This colorful and vibrant establishment, located in the heart of the massive Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem’s Old City, offers a wide variety of kosher delicacies from Iraq. The murag, a rich stew with chunks of beef and potato, was by far one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever had. With convenient indoor and outdoor seating, Azura is a great place to enjoy rare delights and watch the colorful display of shoppers and merchants pass by.
3. Barakiz Local Taverna (Mitcham Bitan, Bitan Aharon, Israel)
As previously stated, Israel is located at a crossroads not just between religions, but cultures as well. From where it’s situated, on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, it naturally is a meeting ground for other “Pan-Mediterranean” cultures, particularly Italian, Turkish, and Greek. Barakiz Greek Restaurant in Bitan Aharon is a humble eatery that boasts being a “local taverna,” though it is quite honestly a deserving moniker. Old and young Israel gathers here, whether to meet up with friends, go out for a dinner date, or simply taste the fine Greek delicacies prepared by the owner (a Greek immigrant himself) and a team of skilled chefs, most of whom hail from Greece. With traditional fare such as souvlaki, moussaka, and gyro, Barakiz serves an authentic culinary experience reflective of the rich flavors of both mainland Greece and the Greek islands.
4. Abu Shakker (Sderot HaMeginim 29, Haifa, Israel)
From its exterior off a busy thoroughfare in the bustling port city of Haifa, this is a blink-and-you-might-miss-it establishment, but step inside this family-owned restaurant (opened in 1936), and you’ll discover a world of flavor. Abu Shakker’s claim to fame is its hummus, which is delicious, and made in the Arab fashion, but they also make delectable falafel, shawarma, and other North African and Middle Eastern staples. Do you like your falafel with a little kick? Their homemade harissa, a spicy chili pepper sauce from Tunisia, will surely get your tastebuds going!
5. Nomili Patisserie (Sokolov Street 3, Kfar Saba, Israel)
It’s always been a dream of mine to visit Paris. Aside from the culture, history, and all-around beauty of the fabled City of Lights, the food, particularly its pastries, is simply yet another reason to go. While I unfortunately haven’t yet had the pleasure of traveling to the French capital, I can honestly say that I have already had an authentic sampling. Nomili Patisserie is a charming cafe located right off of busy Sokolov Street in Kfar Saba. Opened in 2010, it serves a wide variety of French pastries and beverages, all of which can be enjoyed in the quaintest atmosphere this side of the Left Bank.