Be still, my chicken heart: an Israeli dining experience in South Bay

Chicken hearts. Yes, I ate grilled chicken hearts. Hearts. A whole mess of ’em. When I began writing a column on the Jewish food scene in the Bay Area 31/2 years ago, this wasn’t exactly my vision of one of the “perks.”

But I’ve never been unwilling to break away from bagels, pastrami sandwiches and falafel — and the new Tiberias Grill in Sunnyvale offers a prime (and rare) opportunity.

Open for three months, the 12-table restaurant specializes in meats that are cooked over an Israeli-style open charcoal grill, and the charcoal factor makes it an authentic Israeli dining experience I haven’t seen anywhere else in the Bay Area.

Tucked away in the crook of a 1960s-era strip shopping center, the restaurant is the opposite of pretentious. You order at the counter and sit on plastic chairs at typical diner tables waiting for the grillmaster to cook up your meat. The caddies that hold the napkins contain a Coca-Cola logo.

A Tiberias Grill plate, this one with extra meat portions, includes toppings and sides atop a round of lafa (the chicken hearts are to the right of the meats). photos/andy altman-ohr

When the restaurant first opened, the big menu board listed the four main choices in their Hebrew transliterations, but when that proved to be too confusing for many patrons, English translations were added: levavot (chicken hearts), pargiyot (chicken thighs), shishlik (beef) and kabab (ground beef).

You can order them either in a pita ($9) or rolled up in a huge flatbread called lafa ($10), or you can get two skewers with hummus and Israeli salads served atop a lafa ($13). If you choose shishlik, or cubed beef, rather than the sausage-like kabab, the cost is $2 more for each option, and an additional skewer of meat runs only $3.49, a bit more for shishlik. The cost includes unlimited trips to a plentiful help-yourself toppings bar with big tubs of fresh, homemade Israeli salad, olives, pickles and turshi (pickled vegetables of several varieties).

The meats are bathed in Israeli spices, then stabbed with a long, flat skewer and cooked slowly and evenly (sometimes with the help of a hair dryer) over an indoor charcoal grill. Charcoal? Indoors? Suffice it to say, it took a lot of assurances — and an expensive brick enclosure for the grill — to convince city officials all would be OK. I’m glad they finally approved, because the charcoal is the key: It grills meats that are at once smoky, crispy, chewy, tender and cooked all the way through.

All the meat is cooked over a charcoal grill.

The chicken hearts have proven to be a favorite choice not only of the many Israeli customers, but also of Indian and Chinese patrons familiar with this organ meat. I can see why. The small size of the hearts (a bit smaller than, say, a Brussels sprout) combined with the charcoal cooking process creates a bite-size delicacy that is charred, chewy and tasty.

The pitas and lafa are made daily at a non-Middle Eastern bakery nearby. Squirt bottles of tahini, amba (spicy mango sauce) and chili sauce add to the authenticity.

Tiberias Grill is the first restaurant of Israel native Meir Nahum, 43, who moved to the South Bay eight years ago with his wife of 19 years, Rotem, who also helps out in the restaurant (including making its fabulous lentil soup). While she went to work as a software development manager, he stayed home raising their three now teenage kids — and devoted himself to healthier eating and exercise, resulting in a weight loss of 105 pounds. An avid baker (and food enthusiast), he decided in 2012 that opening a restaurant would be a good idea. It took 18 months to find the right spot, and 10 months to open.

Rotem and Meir Nahum

In Israel, Nahum lived in Shadmot Dvora, an agricultural moshav near Mount Dvora, about 15 miles away from Tiberias, which is where he is originally from— thus the name of the restaurant. Nahum said about half the customers are Israelis and the other half a mix of nationalities.

Of the chicken hearts, Nahum said, “Americans are a little bit afraid to try them, but the Chinese do know that dish and they do order it. And the Israelis love it.”

Nahum buys the hearts in an Asian supermarket, and from that we surmise that his restaurant isn’t kosher. But it does close at 4 p.m. on Fridays and isn’t open on Saturdays. “No, it’s not kosher — too expensive and we’d have to change the way we do everything. I just don’t work on Shabbat.”

Tiberias Grill

153 E. Fremont Ave., Sunnyvale

11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday

(408) 462-9437 www.tiberiasgrill.com;

Tiberias Grill on Facebook

MORE TASTES OF ISRAEL: Ten months ago, I had the pleasure of trying a San Francisco pop-up called Sababa, which crafted really good falafel sandwiches in fresh, homemade pita. Each puffy pita was practically made-to-order by Melissa Davidson, a pastry chef and the girlfriend of Guy Eshel.

Eshel, a native of Israel, is the chef and driving force behind Sababa, Hebrew and Arabic slang for “cool” or “awesome.” He has secured a brick-and-mortar location in San Francisco’s Financial District (329 Kearny St. between Bush and Pine streets), and he hopes to open by the spring.

A cook at the well-known AQ in San Francisco, Eshel tried Sababa as a pop-up three times last year, with help from AQ owner Matt Semmelhack. Packaged slickly and held at Adam Mesnick’s Deli Board sandwich shop, it proved to be a success, so the two are going forward on the permanent location in a former Cuban restaurant.

Davidson will help train Sababa’s baker on how to make her signature pitas, which puff up, and Eshel will take it from there, with the falafel, chicken shwarma and merguez (a meaty, sausage-like option) and all the fixin’s. Since many of the customers will be on their lunch breaks, the goal is for quick, fresh, healthy food — and I’m just going to go ahead and call it Israeli food rather than Middle Eastern.

People can opt for their lunch in a bowl rather than in a pita, and there will be a selection of salads, too. There will probably be 14 seats inside, and maybe a few more outside, and the plan is to have a wood-burning pita oven that can be seen from the street.

Like all restaurants, especially those that need to do major renovations, the opening date could end up being beyond (well beyond?) the midspring Eshel is predicting. For updates, visit www.sababasf.com or follow @sababahotpita.

Leftovers …

Falafel Stop’s new enclosed, heated dining area photo/andy altman-ohr

One thing that should be noted about Tiberias Grill (my column lead) is that it’s less than a quarter-mile from Falafel Stop, a popular falafel and hummus place owned by Israelis Jonathan and Michal Laor. When Tiberias customers ask for falafel, owner Meir Nahum doesn’t hesitate in directing them to Falafel Stop, which recently added a huge, canvas-enclosed, heated dining area (you still order at an “outdoor” window). I stopped by after my visit to Tiberias, but the line was so long and I was already so full that I vowed to return soon. It’s at 1325 Saratoga Road in Sunnyvale (www.falafelstop.biz) … P.S. Both Tiberias Grill and Falafel Stop have 4.5 stars on Yelp … Chef Les Goodman of Goodman’s Jewish Deli, a farmers market stand in Santa Rosa and nearby towns, was interviewed on KSRO Radio’s “Good Food Hour” this month. When the host opens up with, “When I got my [Congregation] Shomrei Torah bulletin, I saw that chef Les Goodman was offering a couple of Jewish cooking classes this month,” you know it’s going to be a good show. Goodman talks about the sold-out classes, one on Ashkenazi food, the other on Sephardic, and other topics. You can listen at www.ksro.com/good-food-hour-podcast-january-9th … Shmaltz Brewing, makers of He’Brew beer, is celebrating its 20th birthday in San Francisco’s Mission District by unveiling Funky Jewbelation, a strong ale with 9.4-percent alcohol, during San Francisco Beer Week Jan. 22-30. With a label that includes the slogan “L’Chaim Sucka,” the beer will have its national release during a party that starts at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco, and will be available at other Beer Week events from Hayward to Berkeley and beyond. For details, look for the events calendar at www.shmaltzbrewing.com … In partnership with the Oshman Family JCC, L’Chaim Foods (formerly L’Chaim Sushi) is having a Valentine’s Day Pop-Up from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 14 at the JCC in Palo Alto. L’Chaim’s new thing is monthly kosher pop-ups with guest chefs, starting with Japanese and Ethiopian cuisine the past two months. The February dinner is being curated by chef Itta Wediger Roth, whose “Hearty Start” menu will include Miso-Massaged Kale, Big Time Bone-in Rib Eye with Zinfandel and Herbs, and Spiced Date Compote. Tickets start at $35, with a surcharge for babysitting. For details, visit www.lchaimfoods.com … “Beyond Bubbe: Soy Vey” is scheduled for 6:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It’s a celebration of the Chinese New Year, Jewish-style, with storytelling from some Jewish  restaurant folks, including Karen Leibowitz of Mission Chinese fame. Cookbook author Gabi Moskowitz (“BrokeAss Gourmet”) will talk about her pork-free Chinese potstickers, and have some for sampling, and there will also be fortune cookies with Jewish-themed fortunes inside. For more details, visit www.thecjm.com … Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto is having “Jewish Tasting Day” from 10 a.m. to1 p.m. Jan. 31. It’s explained that “professional chefs and talented cooks” will present workshops for children and adults about Jewish food from different regions of the world and different eras in history, and a light lunch is included. It’s $10 if space is still available; to find out, visit www.kolemeth.org/jewish-tasting-day … Nabolom Bakery, a Berkeley institution loved by Jews for its four-stranded challah year-round and honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, is reopening under a new owner, SFGate.com reports. It shut down five months ago after 40 years in business. The new owner is longtime baker Julia Elliott, a former partner at Tante’s Catering, which sells knishes (and more) at street festivals and other public celebrations … Something calling itself “the first annual National Bagel Eating Contest” is scheduled to be held on Long Island, New York, on Feb. 7 — two days in advance of National Bagel Day. Whoever can eat the most bagels in five minutes will win a $500 prize. To register (which costs $25) or for more details, visit www.bageleatingcontest.com. And if you’re from the Bay Area and you’re going to participate … be sure to let me know!

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.