Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are inextricably tied to the ancient city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of sacred sites both unique and common to all three religions. One of the oldest cities in the world as well as Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem has a prominent role in both the Old and New Testament. According to Bible Study Tools, “the name “Jerusalem” occurs 806 times in the Bible, 660 times in the Old Testament and 146 times in the New Testament; additional references to the city occur as synonyms.” Surprisingly, Jerusalem is not directly mentioned by name in the Qur’an, even in its Arabic translation of Al Quds.
As a lifelong Catholic (with the bad knees to show for it), the significance of Jerusalem was imprinted in my mind at an early age. Catechism and Mass readings regaled us with stories of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem as a precocious child listening, asking questions, and amazing Jewish teachers with his understanding. We learned that Jerusalem was where a thirty-year-old Jesus was baptized by John, signaling the start of His ministry on Earth. Jerusalem plays a prominent role throughout the life of Jesus, even onto His crucifixion at a knoll on the outskirts of the city.
When my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver told me about a new restaurant in Rio Rancho calling itself Jerusalem: A Taste of the Holy Land, it planted a question in my mind: What would Jesus have eaten? Surely, He wouldn’t have sat at a posh restaurant in the Holy Land to enjoy a plate of shawarma or maybe dipping some pita into a bowl of Baba Ghandush. What about falafel and baklava? Surely they’re ancient dishes that must have been around during the time of my Lord and Savior…or were they? Could Jesus possibly have been a vegetarian or possibly even a vegan?
Answers to these questions can be found in both in the Bible and in books chronicling traditional Jewish culture. Learn Religions probably explains it best: “As an observant Jew, Jesus would have followed the dietary laws laid down in the 11th chapter of the book of Leviticus. More than anything, he conformed his life to the will of God. Clean animals included cattle, sheep, goats, some fowl, and fish. Unclean or forbidden animals included pigs, camels, birds of prey, shellfish, eels, and reptiles. Jews could eat grasshoppers or locusts, as John the Baptist did, but no other insects.” The site describes other foods poor Jews would have eaten during the time of Jesus.
It’s wholly unlikely Jesus ate many (or any) of the dishes offered at Jerusalem: Taste of the Holy Land though some of the ingredients from which those dishes are prepared were certainly available during His time. Because Jesus is always my first choice in answering the deeply philosophical question “which historical figures would you invite to dinner,” contemplating just what to serve Him is an equally weighty matter. Irrespective of the repast served, I would also invite my friend Sr. Plata to that dinner. The discussion on contemporary and historical Judaism would be more than interesting.
As a strict observer of Jewish dietary laws, Sr. Plata has full faith and confidence a restaurant such as Jerusalem…will prepare and serve him dishes inviolate of his religion. Moreover, he trusts that such restaurants will serve the delicious variety he craves. Jerusalem… opened its doors in August, 2019. Though it has a Rio Rancho Boulevard address, its storefront doesn’t face the heavily trafficked main street on the City of Vision. In fact, it’s easier to get to Jerusalem from Sara Road just across the street from Intel Corporation.
Because of its rather comprehensive menu spanning a broad geographic region, Jerusalem: Taste of the Holy Land could well be called “Taste of the Mediterranean” or “Taste of the Middle East.” Appetizer options alone range from spanokopita (Greece), baba ghanoush (Lebanon), kibbeh (Syria) and falafel (Egypt). Sixteen sandwich and sandwich combination plate options are available. That’s twice as many options as there are entrees. Soup and salad, seafood platters, veggie plates, family deals and “Jerusalem’s Favorites” round out a very impressive menu.
20 January 2020: The appetizer platter (combination of kibbeh, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, and freshly baked pita bread) provides a great introduction to Holy Land favorites. Pita bread is the most ancient offering in the appetizer platter, its genesis credited to Amorites or Bedouins around 4,000 years ago. Though pita was not what Jesus fed the multitudes at the Sermon on the Mount, multitudes have loved this yeast-leavened flatbread since well before His time. Jerusalem’s version, a freshly baked, warm exemplar of this delicious bread is great for dipping into the hummus or baba ghanoush. The baba ghanoush is special, a smoky, creamy, absolutely delicious (and fun to say) eggplant concoction. The Kibbeh, a small football-shaped dish made of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef and seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice is also well done.
20 January 2020: Both Sr. Plata and I ordered from the Jerusalem’s Favorites section of the menu. Our entrees both included soup or salad. One of the two soup options (the other was lentil soup) is freeken not fricking) soup, a Palestinian chicken-based soup made with cracked wheat, onions, chunks of chicken breast in a homemade chicken broth, garnished with parsley and sumac. If chicken broth is a hot and comforting elixir to cure all ills and tame winter’s bite, this one is amped up courtesy of the sumac, one of my favorite spices.
20 January 2020: Sr. Plata opted for the salad, a bowl of Romaine lettuce, sliced tomatoes, red onions, thinly sliced cucumbers, kalamata olives, pepperoncini, pickles and feta cheese. Despite being pitted, the brine-cured olives aren’t as mushy and overly salty as pitted olives tend to be. The pickles are both spicy and sour, a truly delightful combination. Fetid feta is a nice foil for the fresh, crispy veggies while an olive oil and vinegar dressing provides subtle notes that play well with the other salad ingredients without taking anything away.
20 January 2020: Sr. Plata’s entree from the Jerusalem’s Specials was the shawarma combo (beef, chicken and lamb shawarma served with rice, hummus, and freshly baked pita bread). All three meats proved juicy, tender and well-seasoned with an essence of having been marinated and roasted slowly. The meats are served with a pungent garlic sauce though we would have preferred tzatziki. Similarly we would have preferred baba ghanoush over hummus, but that’s a lesson learned for next time (and there will be a next time). The rice is fluffy and light with no clumping anywhere.
20 January 2020: My choice was the mashawi combo (a combination of beef kafta, chicken and lamb kabobs served with rice, hummus, and freshly baked pita bread). The term mashawi means any meat or vegetable that can be roasted or barbecued. Whereas the shawarma was cut into small pieces, the beef, chicken and lamb were individual one bite chunks. Because the meats are larger, they seem to have a better distribution of spices. The lamb in particular is prepared at about medium whereas its shawarma counterpart is closer to well-done. For juiciness, tenderness and flavor, the mashawi combo is superior to the shawarma combo.
29 March 2020: In 2019, the per-capita consumption of lamb among Americans was a meager one pound per person per year. Instead, beef is what was for dinner–to the Brobdingnagian tune of sixty-one pounds per person. As recently as 2014, the American Lamb Board reported that nearly half of American diners had never even tasted lamb. Blame this travesty on the latest war to end all wars, when rations for American servicemen in Europe included mutton (older sheep) passed off as lamb (typically slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months). Servicemen hated the strong musky flavor of adult sheep and brought their distaste home with them. Understandably, many of them forbade lamb from their dinner tables, resulting in generations growing up unfamiliar with the delights of real lamb.
Americans who have a beef with lamb need only try lamb shank to learn that this is a cross-cultural meat with flavor. Because they come from the legs of a lamb, lamb shanks are understandably a very tough, muscular cut of meat. Then they’re covered by a thin layer of fat and connective tissue. When prepared well, lamb shanks have a strong, rich flavor. Proper preparation means cooking it slowly until the shank becomes tender and fully developed in flavor. That’s the way the lamb shank (tender lamb shank blended with our special spices served with rice and Arabic salad) is prepared and served at Jerusalem. Braised to a tender submission and seasoned with spices that highlight, but don’t mask the lamb’s native flavors, the lamb shank evokes a primitive ardor perhaps inherited from ancestors who ate a lot more meat. There’s just something very satisfying about gnawing at the bone to extricate morsels of unctuous lamb from the nooks and crannies of that bone. There’s something very satisfying about Jerusalem’s lamb shank.
20 March 2020: You can’t have a cogent discussion about lamb without the mention of gyros, a Greek sandwich constructed from various rotisseried meats, salad vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce and onions, along with a yogurt-based tzatziki sauce placed on a round piece of warmed or grilled pita bread. Among–likely the most common of–the various rotisseried meats from which gyros are constructed is an amalgam of lamb and beef. Some of you might be thinking “I love gyros. Lamb, not so much.” Some of you may not even realize that gyros sandwich you’ve enjoyed at the mall or favorite Greek restaurant is actually made with that aforementioned lamb and beef amalgam…and guess what, you probably love it.
Jerusalem’s gyro sandwich (ground lamb, beef, vegetables, and spices cut into strips with tzatziki sauce) is one of the best you’ll find in the metropolitan area, right up there with my Kim’s favorite at Gyros Mediterranean. Whereas the lamb and beef amalgam on most gyros is shaved rather thinly from a conically shaped vertical spit, the minced lamb and beef at Jerusalem is cut into thicker slices. The advantage to thicker slices is more flavor and moistness. Jerusalem is very generous with its portions. The pita is brimming with ingredients, a good balance of meats and vegetables with a tart yogurt-based tzatziki sauce (dill, lemon juice, tahini, cucumbers).
26 August 2022: Menus at Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants throughout the world often include both gyros and kabobs. If you believe these two items are interchangeable, referring to one and only dish, you would be wrong. Truth is both gyros and kabobs have differences–and not necessarily subtle–in taste, shape, seasoning. Gyros are thin pieces of roasted meat and kebabs are spicy minced meat skewers. At least in Greece, that’s what they are. As is often the case with foods that cross national boundaries and culinary cultures, a caveat emptor is appropriate–even these differences and similarities are not universal. In Greece, for example, you’re much more likely to find gyros stuffed with pork, not the lamb-beef amalgam you find in American restaurants. In Turkey, kabobs aren’t necessarily made with minced meat.
Order a kabob or gyros at Jerusalem: A Taste of the Holy Land and what arrives at your table are the meats extricated from their respective skewers. If you want those meats nestled in pita, you have to order a “gyros sandwich” or “kabob sandwich.” Not to worry. A kabob meal includes five skewers of wonderfully seasoned lamb, traditional basmati rice, pita and garlic sauce. Here’s another caveat emptor–if you’re used to lamb being served at the medium-rare degree of doneness, you might be surprised at the medium-well texture and flavor of some kabobs. As with any lamb dish seasoned and prepared well, the deliciousness and tenderness of the lamb still shines through.
For a true taste of the holy land, visit Jerusalem in Rio Rancho, a restaurant that spans cultural, religious and culinary boundaries.
Taste of Jerusalem
1690 Rio Rancho Blvd., Suite B
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 August 2022
1st VISIT: 20 January 2020
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Mashawi Combo, Shawarma Combo, Freeken Soup, Appetizer Platter, Gyros, Lamb Shank, Kabob