Middle Eastern food finally has a pulse in Winter Springs, and it beats between a chiropractor and a liquor store inside a Frankenstein of a strip mall. OK, Willa Springs Village isn't so monstrous; certainly not as monstrous as the sounds my belly was making walking into Heart of Jerusalem's humble digs. I was deliriously hungry and running on the fumes of an onion-serrano omelet enjoyed 12 hours earlier. So, after nearly Clouseau-chopping the pair of medieval knights standing sentinel at the restaurant's entryway, I patted a tall camel sculpture on its head and made my way to the counter under the suspicious, side-eyed gaze of a couple who had stopped eating mid-chew.
"Manakeesh! Dolmas! Babaganoush! Falafel!" I rattled off the four musketeers of Middle Eastern cuisine to the startled girl behind the counter. These culinary archetypes were going to be devoured in one fell swoop, lest that ol' bloat hummus, the Cardinal Richelieu of mezze, prematurely swelled my innards. I had heard about the falafel ($6.89) here, supposedly shaped like hearts (awwww!), and I was going to eat them to my heart's content. Only they weren't shaped like hearts on my visit; they were shaped like spleens. Or a couple of smushed kidneys. No matter the form, they tasted proper-good — and they're included with both babaganoush ($8.89) and hummus ($8.89), so don't feel compelled to order them separately. Not unless you really love falafel. I do and, honestly, I ate way more than I thought I would. Scooped up all the baba and hummus along the way, too. Re-crisp the falafel in a toaster oven the following day and they revivify just like new (but they still didn't look like hearts).
Dolmas ($6.89), or grape leaves, aren't made in house. Doesn't mean they're bad, they're just not made and folded by chef-owner Hussein Abukhdeir or his cooks. Manakeesh ($7.89), however, is. The grilled, doughy round with a pretty mess of toppings — feta, diced tomatoes, olives, tzatziki and healthy shaking of za'atar — makes a breakfast of champions in Abukhdeir's native Palestine.
He was born in Jerusalem and came to the United States in 1979 with his parents. Abukhdeir then followed in his father's footsteps by serving his new country as an engineer for the U.S. Air Force. But the post-9/11 era wasn't exactly kind to brown people of Muslim faith, even those in the service. So, he retired in 2005 after 28 years and opened his first Heart of Jerusalem Café not too far from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. Using food as a means to bridge cultural divides may sound hokey or clichéd, but it worked for Abukhdeir. Business boomed, other HOJs followed, and that kebab sampler ($19.89) of his, with its grilled cubes of marinated lamb, chicken and ground kufta over rice, built understanding one bite at a time (especially that kufta). And his shawarmas, too.
The "chikofel" ($9.89) packs chicken and falafel into a grilled za'atar pita with plenty of crunchy and creamy things – pickled turnips and banana peppers; lettuce and tomato; hummus and tzatziki. For an extra $5, I got a side (my choice: lemony tabouleh), a drink (loved the Arnold Palmer fashioned from fresh sage tea and lemonade) and baklava. The latter was a yule log of honey, nuts, and filo pastry and you'll absolutely heart it.
It's all very gratifying stuff. When I got up to leave, I looked around and noticed I was the only one left in the dining room. Images of Palestine projected from two flat screens as Arabic music played from a third. I caught sight of a few more camel sculptures near the front but as I headed out, I stopped next to the armored guards, patted them on their heads, and bid farewell to these knights of the brown table.