Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Shuk is a vibrant market by day, and a party, live music and a bar scene by night.
There’s unparalleled exuberance, history and character to this market, which was established at the dawn of the 19th century, went through many upheavals, and an eventual revival.
The nonchalant elderly men play backgammon in the court just across from Azura, by the Iraqi market of the shuk, while having a smoke. Millennial and tourists sip from beer bottles nearby at Beer Bazaar. The graffiti murals on the garage style metal doors of stalls are in full sight, especially at night, when many of the market stalls are closed. Throughout the shuk, and its surroundings, larger than life graffiti murals are painted on walls and trash cans, which adds color and whimsey to the food crawl experience.
In between the food crawl stops, taste halva, tahini and olive oil, split a build-your-own sandwich at Basher, a gourmet cheese shop, pick up seeds and nuts and fruit to snack on and a cappuccino at Roasters before you embark on the crawl or as a pit stop respite to take in all the sensations of the shuk. For those who aren’t carnivores, there’s even a vegetarian, vegan, organic place, HaAgas 1, inside the shuk. The shuk also offers a self guided Yalla Basta Bite Card, or you can hire a private guide.
I asked a trio of experts in the culinary scene in Israel, Keren Brown, a food writer and author, Amit Aaronsohn, a culinary TV host and restaurant critic, and Joel Haber, a certified tour guide, to share some of their favorites in and around the shuk. Here’s my curated list of must-try’s:
1.Aricha Sabich (Kosher) - Agripas St. 83, Jerusalem- is the first stop on the food crawl and a must bite. If you could only have one bite in Mahane Yehuda, this fried eggplant, with all the trimmings, in a plump pita is it. The turnover is so high at this popular spot, that the fried eggplant stays golden and crisp and never has a chance to dull and slump. The deconstructed version is traditionally Iraqi Jews’ Saturday (Shabbat) meal that the community brought with them when they immigrated to Israel. The whole wheat or regular pita with the eggplant, sliced hard boiled egg, tahini, Israeli salad, amba (Iraqi pickles mango) and a touch of spicy sauce, is layered meticulously and assembled swiftly at the counter right in front of you. The egg can be substituted with portobello mushrooms to make it vegan. You would not be able to compel yourself to share.
2.Marzipan Bakery(Kosher)- Agripas St. 44, Jerusalem Even though Marzipan Bakery’s gooey rugelach can now be found across the US, it isn’t the same as dropping by this 30 year old bakery across the street from Aricha, along the shuk’s outside wall. If you thought you knew rugelach, think again. These oozy, pillowy chocolatey treats were listed among Saveur’s 100 best foods in the world in 2010.
3.Uzi Eli Etrog Man is just a few steps from Marzipan, turn right to pop into the shuk for smoothie-like delicious, antioxidant rich concoctions. Uzi Eli, the Citronman, is quite the character. A self appointed healer who treats his clients with natural sprays and cream remedies. Try his namesake drink, citron juice, compounded with many healing properties or the citron with “ghat”, an herbal stimulant that is usually chewed like tobacco and gets you a bit high. If you dare, try the potent, anti-inflammatory, immune and metabolism boosting curcumin (turmeric) and ginger with a dash of pepper shot!
4.Rachmo(Kosher) - Yehuda Eshkok 5, Jerusalem is “One of the famous misadot poalim, “workers restaurants,” in the area. Originally designed to serve the people who work in the shuk (they have to eat lunch too), they cook the food in the morning, keep it warm all day on kerosene burners (that they still use today), and you go in to order your food and it is immediately on your plate. But then, when you finish eating, you don’t sit around to chitchat with your friends; they kick you out to make way for the next people. It’s not rude, it’s just the way it is. And the food is also a Yerushalmi mix (offal on grill). Lots of Turkish stews, but also anything that Jerusalemites like to eat, such as hummus, falafel balls, shakshuka, etc.,” according to Joel Haber, an American Israeli tour guide specializing in the shuk.
5.Hatchapuria in close proximity to Rachmo, specializes in Georgian breads, pastries and food. Hatch means cheese and puri is bread. Before the the infamous acharuli (a type of hatchpuri), boat shaped bread with melting cheese and a runny egg yolk on top, started popping-up on menus in DC and NY, and as a yolk porn on Instagram, it was on the Hatchpuria’s menu since they opened in 2009. The first wave of Georgians immigrated to Israel in the 70’s, well over two decades before the fall of the Soviet Union. The food is made to order, so watch it being baked in the clay oven and don’t be alarmed to hear some rambunctious, loud voice exchanges, while waiting.
6.Azura (Kosher) - HaEshkol 4, Jerusalem is an all-time favorite. “To discover the Israeli home cooked experience, Azura is one of your best bets! Its Turkish-Jewish food and homey aromas of kubbeh - stuffed croquettes with meat in rich broths are definitely a bucket list experience,” says Canadian Israeli food writer and author Keren Brown. Order the kubbeh, semolina-filled meat, in a vibrant crimson beet sauce, and also the kubbeh in a lemony sauce with Swiss chard, celery and zucchini. The slow cooked meat with potatoes sofrito, is also a must. And if you ask, they will let you photograph the stews in massive pots, cooking on kerosene burners, in the kitchen.
7.Crave (Kosher)- Ha-Shikma Street 1, Jerusalem, owned by an American, “is a place you can find only in a city like Jerusalem. Here ultra-orthodox Jews can share a table with hipster art students and indulge in sleazy, greasy and absolutely delicious American street food made 100% kosher. And if you are thinking - like I thought before I first ate here - that ‘kosher’ means, by definition, some form of compromise - just take a bite of the local Ruben,“ an endorsement by Amit Aaronsohn, an Israeli culinary TV host and a restaurant critic. While at it, if they don’t run out, order the fish tacos. The drizzled sriracha on top brings them up a notch.
8.Ishtabach (Kosher)- HaShikma Beit Yaacov corner 1, Jerusalem, a Kurdish-Syrian boat shaped savory pastry, filled with a variety of fillings, served along with Indian condiments, like chutney, is a hybrid you would probably find only in Israel. The owners are a husband and wife: He is Kurdish-Syrian, she is Cochini Indian. Order their signature siske, a shamburak filled with a slow cooked, tender meat with mashed potatoes and chimichuri-like sauce. It’s baked in their igloo shaped taboon, a clay oven, visible immediately as you enter, which adds to the ambience.
9.Dwiny Pita Bar (Kosher)- Beit Ya’akov St. 6, Jerusalem is a pita joint that has gone creative instead of the predictable pita fillings. Owned by Dini Kasorla, a former communication executive turned restaurateur, she is one of a handful of female owners in a male-dominated industry. “Chraime, a spicy North African fish dish in an airy pita is a must,” according to Israeli food scene expert Keren Brown. A millennial waitress at a nearby establishment swore by the fried red mullet in pita in this simple yet trendy joint. Both are drizzled with tahini and stuffed with preserved lemons. All the pitas, fish, meat and vegetarian, are served in a pita pocket or open faced, similar to bruschetta. “Don’t miss the iconic 3-step fries that locals are drooling over,” Brown says.
10.Argento Empanadas (Kosher) - Agripas Street at the Iraqi shuk in Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem The Argentinian Israeli owner of Argento Empanadas is a fixture in the narrow entrance to this tiny spot in the Iraqi section of the shuk, with a server standing outside, luring in passer-by tourists to taste an empanada or two. Argento offers four empanadas, three classics and one inspired by the shuk with lamb, dates and ras-el-hanout (a Northern African spice mix). If your appetite, at this point of the crawl, is bursting at the seams but you can’t refuse the owner’s charms, go for a taste of the Asado: Smoked in-house for eight hours, the fall off the bone meat is then combined with onions, leeks and olives as a classic Asado empanada filling.
11.Beer Bazaar by day is a preppy Israeli craft beer tastings spot and a saloon by night. And if you let your young adult kid tag along, you’ll win major parent points.
“Beer Bazaar is not just riding the wave of the Craft Beer explosion in Israel; they are helping create it. They bring the beer to the masses, make a number of their own delicious beers and, perhaps most importantly, contract brew beer for small brewers trying to increase production. This is a brand new, booming industry in Israel, and it wouldn’t be doing as well without the Beer Bazaar guys in the picture,” Joel Haber says.
12/13.MachneYuda and Yudale are both chef-driven restaurants, owned by the same conglomerate MachneYuda Group, which gained international acclaim with Plaomar in London and the newly opened Balagan (chaos in Hebrew) in Paris. For a lively, exuberant scene, cue in chefs drumming with utensils on pots and pans, head over to MachneYuda. For a bar scene, spilling into the streets, a beer, a bite, lively music and spontaneous dancing, head over to Yudale.
14.Hatzot earns a spot on this list if only for the mere fact that it’s the home of the original Jerusalem mixed grill. Legend has it that this grilled offal in pita, or deconstructed on a plate, was invented at the restaurant in 1970. An iconic Jerusalemite and Israeli street food staple you can order at the restaurant counter or you can dine inside.
15.Arais Mahneyuda (kosher) - Agripas St. 115, Jerusalem Last, on the food crawl, but not least is the Arayes (Arais), a meat patty inside a pita, grilled together, that makes for a crispy pita soaking in the drippings from the patty on the inside. A Levantine street food that is taking Israel by storm, finally reaching Jerusalem in the footsteps of Haifa, Nazareth and Tel Aviv. From “Food Festival Brings Jews And Arabs Together In Haifa,” an article about an A-Sham (Levantine) Arab Food Festival: “Across the street from the Beer Fountain, at Lahaza, a popular street stand was set up (grill and all) to offer arayes: grilled pita with ground meat in pomegranate syrup, tahini and tomatoes. “Arayes” translates to “brides,” but according to the festival’s program the connection between the dish and brides is unclear.”
Note: This food crawl list is in a descending geographical order. Best to go with a group and share bites. Keep in mind that even if the dishes recommended in some spots are meat-centric, all menus in Israel offer plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. Hours vary. Kosher spots are closed on Shabbat.