Picture this: it’s lunchtime and you’re craving some delicious Israeli cuisine in DC. Where do you go? What do you eat?
If you’re like me and identify as a Falafel Fanatic (should I copyright this as a superhero name?), then you’re reading the right article. I am sharing the results of my search for DC’s best Israeli food with GatherDC’s readers, so you too can know where to get the best middle eastern grub around.
As a proud Israeli, part of this DC food tour included seeing which places stay true to the authenticity that comes with Israeli food – the spices, the flavor, and the feeling of home (imagine a decorative pillow saying “hummus is where the heart is”).
While I am no professional food critic, I do consider myself professionally hungry, so to help us keep it light, we will be giving each restaurant one of two designations: a humMUST or a humMISS.
humMUST: I falaFELL in love with this restaurant and it is straight schug fire. Basically the embodiment of Tel Aviv in DC. You MUST visit it when you get a chance!
humMISS: this place missed the Israeli mark for us but it is far from falawful food!
I tried three different Israel-esque restaurants on this journey: Little Sesame, Yafa Grille, and Shouk. This is by no means an exhaustive list of delicious Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, but rather a small sampling of some hotspots.
Bear with me as I channel my inner Gordon Ramsey (with less profanity) and dive into the hot Israeli food scene in Washington, DC!
Restaurant #1: Little Sesame
If you’ve traveled to Jerusalem, you’ve probably encountered the delicacy that is loaded hummus (a bed of smooth and flavorful earthy hummus topped with some delicious spices and vegetables or meats). Little Sesame, a fast casual endeavor by chefs Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne, captures the Jerusalem marketplace feel with its delicious food.
The Little Sesame menu includes your option of picking between a hummus base or pita pocket with several salads and sides to compliment your main course. You can also customize with some add-ons (like feta, a “10 hour egg”, and more). Trust me when I say the pita is so fluffy you will want to get an extra.
And a special attention to all vegans/vegetarians – this place is for you!! Almost everything on the menu is plant-based and it is very easy to find options that are gluten- free and non-dairy (they even have a dairy-free soft serve ice cream dessert with traditional tahini flavors).
Walking into Little Sesame, the unique atmosphere and decor create a nice background for the delicious individually-prepared food. The line may appear long but moves fairly quickly and the turnaround for food is the same. Little Sesame’s prices are what you would expect for a DC lunch but can get pricey depending on your sides and add-ons on top of the main meal.
Our rating: a humMUST!
True authentic hummus and fresh ingredients make this meal not only relatively healthy, but a delicious lunch to look forward to. With so many options, it’s easy to mix it up and try new things while still getting a substantive meal out of the experience. The restaurant does not have a lot of space for seating but this type of food is easy to carry out. Words cannot express hummus I love this restaurant.
Restaurant #2: Yafa Grille
If you’re looking for a solid DC staple for food, Yafa Grille is your place! Yafa (often times spelled Jaffa or Yafo) is a coastal city in Israel adjacent to Tel Aviv that is known for its architectural antiquity and for being the true embodiment of coexistence between Israeli and Arab citizens. This melting pot of Israeli culture often leads to amazing food from all corners of the world, and of course, middle eastern cuisine.
Yafa Grille offers eaters a very CAVA / Roti-esque style of cuisine, getting the opportunity to pick from several bases (pita pocket, pita wrap, salad bowl, rice bowl, or platter) and either falafel or a couple types of shawarma as protein.
Veggie options here are very delicious as well, with a wonderful cauliflower topping that left us wanting more and a grape leaves side that was a perfect supplement to the meal. The pita reminded me of supermarket Israeli pita that we would eat on Saturday mornings in the park with family.
Our rating: a humMISS.
Yafa Grille has great food and is similar to other types of lunch places you will find in DC. It is a delicious lunch option for when you’re in the area and craving some Mediterranean grub. It didn’t scream “Israel” for us or offer a unique take on the food but is definitely not a restaurant to snuff at!
Restaurant #3: Shouk
The final stop on this journey led us to Shouk, a self-titled “modern Israeli street food” hotspot. I had heard of this place through several friends of mine who are vegan/vegetarian because everything on this menu is completely free of animal products and by-products. Even the labneh is made out of cashews! Shouk makes eating there an ultra-inclusive experience for even the pickiest eaters.
To be fully transparent and acknowledge some bias, as I stepped into their casual eatery, I immediately heard some Israeli music (“mizrahit” if you will) which ignited a nostalgic fire in my already hungry belly.
Similar to the other restaurants, Shouk gives customers the options of a pita, rice, or salad base. However, their protein options are different, rich, and refreshing, including a mushroom shawarma, roasted cauliflower, and their ever-popular Shouk burger which has been featured on both Forbes and The Cooking Channel.
The falafel balls were cooked just perfectly and had a very green and tender center to them. Shouk delivered a full flavor profile using their fresh and invigorating ingredients. The spices used in Shouk’s cooking seemed less like an attempt to appeal to the tastebuds of the masses and more true to its Middle Eastern form. I strongly recommend you try their hummus with za’atar seasoning if you want to immediately be transported to the holy land. Additionally, we tried out their polenta fries which were spiced heavily with rosemary and were unlike any other polenta fries we’ve tried before. The meals were not heavy but still very filling and (aside from a little bit of frying) is generally a healthy option.
Our rating: a humMUST!
Shouk delivered on all cylinders for both remaining true to the Israeli food experience (well, they are an Israeli restaurant) and a delicious flavor-filled meal that even those not seeking out a replicated Israel experience would love. With three locations in DC, Shouk is the kind of restaurant you will return to over and over again (for lunch, dinner, or otherwise). Come hungry because you are going to want to taste a little bit of everything.
Thank you for going with me on my epic journey to find some good hummus and falafel in DC, and for allowing me to make it as dramatic as NBC’s hit drama “This is (humm)Us”. As we say in Israel, “bete’avon” and good eats to all!
About the author: Itay Balely is a DMV-area local and works in the civil rights non-profit world in DC. He is a proud Israeli and loves listening to records on his record player. When he’s not watching his trash TV (particularly MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge), you can find him HUJI-ing on different DC rooftops.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.