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Middle Feast 

JERUSALEM DELI serves up high flavors at rock-bottom prices.

It wouldn't be anomalous if your radar hadn't registered Jerusalem Deli as a player in the Middle Eastern restaurant scene. It's so quietly well-behaved there on its Mid-City corner, its modesty overshadowed by the beloved original Mona's serving fresh-baked pita bread just blocks away. Or so it seemed to me, until a labna attack struck one afternoon when I was in the neighborhood and Mona's was still under reconstruction. Labna (also spelled lebneh or labni) is a thick, sour yogurt. Prepared as a dip for pita bread, it's occasionally kicked up with garlic, sometimes blended with dried herbs and usually drizzled with olive oil. Labna is also a food that select people crave like chocolate or Cheetos. Since I'm one of them, Jerusalem Deli isn't the first Middle Eastern restaurant I've stormed for a spontaneous order to go.

Jerusalem Deli is, however, the first Middle Eastern restaurant to snare me on its $3 labna appetizer alone. It was tarter than the average preparation, tinted green from copious dried mint and swirled into a divet filled with bright, yellowish olive oil. The yogurt could have made enough smoothies for a brass band, and it was packaged up with a generous selection of green olives, pink pickled turnips and pickled chile peppers -- garnishes you pay for, albeit not much, at other Middle Eastern haunts.

Like enchiladas, pesto pasta and red beans, the Middle Eastern cuisine that's prolific in New Orleans has the comforting effect of home cooking even for people whose own china has never hosted a chick pea. Common seasonings such as lemon juice, garlic, cinnamon, mint and parsley are familiar to the typical American palate; staple dishes like labna, hummus, lentil soup and spit-roasted meats taste unpretentious and homespun whether the cook is from Lebanon, Turkey or, in the case of Jerusalem Deli, Palestine.

Given the homespun quality of all Middle Eastern food, then, it's saying something that I haven't sat down to homier Middle Eastern meals than the ones served at Jerusalem Deli. The quantity-to-price quotient factors in, and so does the view into the kitchen where a woman in traditional head-to-toe Islamic dress works amid bottles of orange and rose flower waters. Her food brims with olive oil, salt, aromatic seasonings and a little something extra that tastes like love.

She didn't invent the idea of sauteing lamb bits and spooning them over hummus, but she fries her onions extra caramelly for this common dish, and she stirs in a mother lode of pine nuts. Stuffed grape leaves look and taste like slender cigars, earthy and mulch-like on the outside. The rice-stuffed meatless version is seasoned so profoundly with allspice and pepper that a vegetarian at my table was convinced that hers contained beef. Foule, a thick stew of partly mashed fava beans, pulses with lemon, garlic and fruity olive oil. And the rib-sticking, tomato-based lamb stew with yellow rice is something warm to stick in your cap for the winter months.

Clearly no profits have gone toward hiring a janitor: in contrast to the thriving food, the bare-bones dining area and retail space are dusty in places and chipped in others. But if that's what it takes to keep prices at rock bottom, bring it on. Paying $7 total for a tabouleh salad and a falafel-hummus sandwich is like stumbling upon an outlet store for Aveda products. The tabouleh glorifies parsley, mixing heaps of the grassy leaves with crumbs of bulghur wheat, onion and tomato -- all dampened with olive oil and lemon juice. The falafel is bland, although even unexceptional falafel isn't bad. For the sandwich, these not-bad fried chick pea balls are smooshed into pita pockets with tomato, cucumber, green bell pepper and a smear of hummus.

The hummus is quiet on its own -- mostly tahini and chick peas, not much garlic or lemon -- and baba ghanoush (charred eggplant puree) is all fluff and no smoke. Jerusalem's pita bread is no better than what's available in the supermarket, which is only disappointing if you're addicted to the fresh-baked pita at Mona's or the focaccia-style loaves at Babylon Cafe.

I took a table on my subsequent trips and ate primarily in the company of single gentlemen. The Arabic speakers paged through newspapers that look like artwork to the rest of us, and they watched Arabic news broadcasts on a television you can hear from the sidewalk. Another man caught up on a week's worth of calls, in English. There's a guy glued to his cellular phone in every laid-back neighborhood joint, and Jerusalem Deli is truly as much a neighborhood joint as it is a Middle Eastern one.

Learning that the unsweetened, rose-flavored Lebanese iced tea had been made with Lipton was as much a surprise as hearing that those illegible Arabic newspapers had come from Chicago. Jerusalem Deli was one of the city's first Middle Eastern restaurants when owner Dirar Mousa opened it 15 years ago. If it was exotic then, it's part of the landscape today, feeding the city's expanding affection for a cuisine that's similar in spirit to the soul food of every nation.

click to enlarge It's hard to find a homier meal than the Middle Eastern dishes served up at JERUSALEM DELI in Mid-City. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • It's hard to find a homier meal than the Middle Eastern dishes served up at JERUSALEM DELI in Mid-City.
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