By Oscar Simone
Those who really know me understand that my gourmet foodie heart has always been in an affair with those rich, saucy, spicy, greasy, meaty dishes derived from the Turkish döner kebab. I don’t know what it is about rotating meat, but it never ceases to get me going. Whether it’s a gyro, shawarma, or döner, I’m here for it.
In New York City, when this type of meat is layered onto a pita or yellow rice and served with lettuce, tomato, and a lather- ing of white and hot sauce, it’s often just called “halal.” And I hold a strong stance that the best halal will always come from a food truck. It’s the food of the NYC streets. Just like how trees take in carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen, the halal trucks are a part of the natural city ecosystem. Take this food out of the truck and put it into a brick and mortar shop, and the whole system breaks down. The toppings get more extravagant, the meat dries out, the prices go up, the streets stop smelling so nice, and everything goes to shit.
So, when I moved to Colorado and real- ized food trucks were much sparser than in NYC, and halal ones were likely nonexis- tent, I looked to adapt. But while I try to be as open minded as possible, I cannot deny the existence of some severely stubborn propensities, which are possibly clearest when it comes to halal.
Instead of looking for some delicious gyros or shawarma at one of the many Colorado Springs Greek or Mediterranean restaurants, I decided I would just have to keep my halal indulgences confined to the time spent at home.
Enter cravings? I manage.
Enter cravings + multiple recommenda- tions to a Mediterranean restaurant I’d been eyeing for the past two and a half years? My resolution’s broken and I’m heading out to Taste of Jerusalem.
It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday night but this place is exceptionally sleepy. There’s just one other group of diners inside, and the lighting is a fluorescent math class bright.
Looking beyond the counter into the kitch- en, I don’t see any rotating meat. I’m dis- appointed, but not too worried — I’ve had good experiences with non-döner style halal.
Taste of Jerusalem has more of a lunch- time/takeout place feel than sit down res- taurant. The vibe is sterile and sleepy, the walls are mostly covered by large, lifeless murals of the old city, and the music is so quiet I have to strain my ears to catch any of it. In fairness, it seems as though this mixed Mediterranean spot might do a majority of their business via take-out, so I don’t want to hold its ambiance against it. After all, I do love Taco Star, and that’s about as drab as it gets.
Here’s the caveat: Abdul, the owner and the person often operating the restaurant, was not in during my visit. On the service end, this didn’t seem to matter. The young lady behind the counter was friendly and attentive and worked well with her equally-young peer in the kitchen. But on the food end, this presumed lack of expert guidance was clear.
The meal began with a beautifully pre- sented tray of watery and room-temper- ature Turkish coffee. The flavor was on point, bursting with a rich, chocolate- leaning coffee flavor and an unmistakable hit of cardamom. Everything else about the drink was hard to get down.
An astoundingly meh tabbouleh salad was a nice pair for the rest of the heavier food, but it tasted like essence of parsley and left me wishing I could just have some plain slices of tomato and cucumber.
And then came the bulk of the meal. Beef/lamb meat, tzatziki, lettuce, and to- mato wrapped in a pita had never looked so sad. Maybe I’m just used to the burst- ing portions at my local halal truck back home, but this “shawarma sandwich,” as it’s referred to on the menu, left a lot to be desired in the stuffing department.
There were just a few pieces of meat which, while well-seasoned, were limp and room-temperature. The server asked if I’m into hot sauce, which I quickly af- firmed as I began to think that the sand- wich might just be saved by a fiery harissa- based sauce. To my dismay, she came back holding a clear plastic bottle filled with that unmistakable orangey-red sauce: god- damn Frank’s Red Hot.
I don’t want to blow this out of propor- tion. When it comes to this type of food and its sauces, I’m a bit of a nutjob, so let me try to reel it in.
The sandwich was far from bad tasting and it was nice to let my taste buds hang out with some flavors they’ve been really missing lately. The best bites of the night ended up coming off my dining compan- ion’s plate. There was beautifully flavored, fluffy, golden rice, and really solid falafel with a rich flavor and super crispy exterior. The hummus was good too — nothing spe- cial, but a joy to scoop up with pita.
If you’re in the mood for quick take-out falafel or other Mediterranean fare, Taste of Jerusalem is a good bet. If you’re like me and maybe looking for the taste of some- thing a bit more specific, the search is still on.