4 Bay Area restaurants serving next-level Middle Eastern food

Mezze, falafel, kefta, tagine? The Bay Area’s got all that and – at certain restaurants with a knack for elevating Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine – so much more. Think epic Lebanese barbecue, complex salads of pomegranate and persimmon, and cold-brew coffee with caramel and tahini.

As we continue to dig through our 50 Best Restaurants list to highlight delicious threads and themes (yesterday’s was Mexican fare), please enjoy this sampling of destination-worthy Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants across the East and South Bay:

Jood, San Carlos

The Lebanese butterflied whole chicken at Jood on Laurel Street in San Carlos. 

This tiny counter-service restaurant in downtown San Carlos is doing next-level Lebanese barbecue and street food, including epic sandwiches on locally baked pita and lavash. With his wife and co-owner, Rawan, chef Khaled Harbali also runs the Belmont vegetarian hot spot, Falafelle. But he knew char-grilled meat long before chickpea fritters. Harbali is descended from Lebanese shepherds and cattle ranchers and ran a successful restaurant and butcher shop in Beirut before moving to the Bay in 2013.

At Jood, cherished family recipes featuring tender rib-eye, juicy chicken and flavor-packed kefta take center stage on his grill. A sensational garlic-brined and butterflied chicken is made to order and served on lavash custom-baked for Jood by a South San Francisco bakery. Pro tip: We like to put in a to-go order while we’re eating lunch – a sweet potato or rib-eye “sandweesh” stuffed with house fries, pickles and housemade hummus – so our take-out dinner is ready just as we’re licking the last of the toom from our fingers.

A ribeye bites “sandweesh” at Jood. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)

Jood makes every sauce and side from scratch, including the sun-dried tomato “sun” sauce and a spicy pili pili made from Fresno chiles. It is touches like these that make us go out of our way to eat at Jood.

Don’t miss: The rib-eye bites sandweesh, of course, the fattoush salad with pomegranate molasses, char-grilled kefta and halloumi salata with imported Cypriot sheep’s milk cheese.

Details: 635 Laurel St., San Carlos; eatjood.com

Pomella, Oakland

The hummus with pine nuts at Oakland’s Pomella, a casual Israeli-Californian eatery from chef Mica Talmor. (Douglas Despres)

There’s something fun and whimsical about Pomella, the California-Israeli eatery from chef Mica Talmor. Perhaps it’s the patio with its Crayola-orange furniture and gabled sunroofs perfect for picnicking. Or maybe it’s the customization: Dozens of dishes can be mixed, matched, slipped into wraps or salads, and doused with a rainbow of sauces, from tzatziki to harissa to fermented mango. And the deli cases beg you to bring something home – grape leaves, fruit crisps, chocolate pots de crème.

Fans of Talmor’s previous restaurant, Ba-Bite, will recognize the concept of healthy, fresh mezze plates, a spread meant to be shared. Her hummus is as good as ever, tangy and silky-smooth from the chickpeas cooked in alkaline water. Pomegranate eggplant, served with yogurt and tahini, has lovely charred skin and a sweet, campfire aroma, while roasted beets delight with their topping of crunchy walnuts and ras el hanout. Larger plates include chicken tagine with couscous and preserved lemon, and springy lamb kefta with your choice of rice (go for the majadra jazzed up with lentils and a snowfall of caramelized onion).

Don’t miss: Just thinking about the hummus, the pomegranate eggplant, beet salad, mango amba and spicy-green schug sauces is making us salivate.

Details: 3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; pomellaoakland.com

Mazra, San Bruno

A Falafel Mezza Sampler at Mazra in San Bruno comes with four falafel and sides and dips. The restaurant makes a dozen side dishes daily. (Photo courtesty of Mazra)

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Habibi – the Arabic term of endearment – appears in every corner of this whimsically decorated all-halal Mediterranean restaurant in San Bruno. Do it for the habibis. Take it easy, habibi, good food takes time. Each sign feels like someone’s grandma is pinching your cheeks. And the food – tender kabobs, six-hour lamb shank and fresh, addictive salads – has that same comforting sensibility, with some chef-driven touches. No wonder this converted Middle Eastern grocery store took the No. 2 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 national list in 2021.

The Jordanian owners, the Makableh family, have decorated the former Green Valley Market with bold Arab pop art and strands of artificial cherry blossoms, so there’s always something to look at as you tuck into specialties such as slow-roasted shawarma, street-style wraps and whole heirloom purple cauliflower tossed in tahini sauce. Everything is made from scratch, down to the seasonal raspberry lemonade and cantaloupe juice. Even the self-serve black tea – hot, laced with cinnamon and complimentary – is next level.

Don’t miss: Double kabob plate, hummus, Arabic salad, sambusa.

Details: 504 San Bruno Ave. W., San Bruno; eatmazra.com

Lulu, Berkeley

An exceptional bread and pastry program anchors the menu at this all-female run, daytime corner café in West Berkeley, where the bold flavors of Palestinian-California cuisine shine for breakfast, lunch and one of the best weekend brunch experiences in the East Bay.

Chef-owner Mona Leena Michael’s mezze brunch, presented on round wooden slabs, is a Middle Eastern technicolor dreamscape of next-level dips – think preserved lemon labneh with mint oil, morita-chili hummus with shimeji mushrooms – alongside heartier bites, like fennel-scented falafel and fried za’atar polenta with a whipped feta-cream sauce.

Knafeh pancake is one of the desserts at the Palestinian-American restaurant, Lulu, in Berkeley. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Drinks are just as dreamy: Cold brew is swirled with caramel and tahini, and the lemon orange blossom spritz is spa water with soul. While rezzies fill up weeks in advance for Friday-Sunday brunch, you can walk into the fig wallpapered café for cardamom-scented scones, orange-sumac sugar cookies or a seasonal manousheh. Be sure to notice the cool Arab pop art, too.

Don’t miss: Vegan breads, knafeh pancake, halloumi sliders, rose brulee cappuccino, and the seasonal sweet-and-savory scones are irresistible.

Details: 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley; luluberkeley.com

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