Tourists who keep kosher know where to go when they visit San Francisco: straight to Chinatown (of course!) for a lamb skewer or falafel at Sabra Grill. But why doesn’t the oddly located glatt kosher restaurant draw a sizeable crowd of people who live here?
Well, maybe that’s about to change.
Longtime absentee owner Eitan Hilleli has taken over the operation of the 17-year-old eatery from his nephew, and things at Sabra are decidedly different.
People who have tried the restaurant in years past, only to leave feeling “once was enough,” might want to make time for a second visit.
The food is better, the service is good, the décor is less cluttered and the walls are painted fresh. Dings and dents have been fixed, chipped edges smoothed over, chairs re-covered, new curtains hung. And the atmosphere is warmer, as the energetic Hilleli greets customers with a smile and conversation.
“Over the years, the reputation of this place has been not so good,” the Israeli native admits. “But I took over four months ago, and I’ve been cleaning and fixing and scrubbing to make it nice again. I’m here from noon to 9 p.m. every day. I’m working so hard, I’ve lost 15 pounds.”
Sabra Grill serves a wide array of Israeli food, with especially tasty baba ghanoush and tahini. The menu is huge — with 14 sandwiches for lunch specials, and a dinner menu that includes everything from grilled salmon to beef kebabs to salami or pastrami cold-cut plates.
“We’re the only [Vaad Hakashrus certified] kosher restaurant here in San Francisco,” Hilleli says. “We need the support.”
Hilleli, 54, and his son, Joseph, are sharing time behind the grill, and for the summer, the wait staff includes Hilleli’s daughter, Esther. As at many kosher meat places, the dinner prices aren’t cheap — $27.99 for beef shishlik (double skewer), $24.99 for grilled chicken breast — but all orders come with rice or fries, pita, pickles, salads … and perhaps a few other extras thrown in (it’s that kind of place).
Hilleli, who lives in Foster City, opened Sabra Grill in 1997. At that time, with the economy booming, renting in San Francisco was expensive, so when an upstairs Japanese restaurant in Chinatown became available, he bought it. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the most ideal location, but he’s grown to live with it. “Now I joke that I’m a Chinese Jew,” he says.
Climbing the stairs to dine at Sabra Grill is part of the experience. At the top landing is a huge bulletin board, packed with cards and fliers from Jewish businesses and agencies. Around the corner is an overstuffed rack of books in Hebrew. Assorted Judaica and Israel posters give the 45-seat restaurant a homey, familiar feeling.
Two weeks ago, a group of 16 travelers from Israel booked a breakfast reservation, and diners at other times are predominantly Jewish tourists or locals.
“I’ve put my heart into it,” Hilleli says. “It feels like home.”
419 Grant Ave., San Francisco
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; noon until 2 hours before Shabbat on Friday; closed Saturday
KOSHER-WICHES AT CAL: A new kosher sandwich program run by Cal Dining is due to start within the month at U.C. Berkeley, and the sandwiches will be available to the public, not just students.
Under the direction of a mashgiach, in a kashered area of one of Cal’s kitchens (which will include a locked refrigerator), a variety of sandwiches will be prepared on weekday mornings. They will be double-wrapped, affixed with a kosher sticker and distributed to several eateries and mini-markets in Berkeley.
The probable lineup to start: the Bear Market, in the dormitory complex at 2400 Durant Ave.; the Golden Bear Café on Sproul Plaza; the Den, near the Peet’s in the residence hall at 2415 Bowditch St.; and Ramona’s Café, in Wurster Hall on campus.
The sandwiches: pastrami, corned beef, turkey, veggie, and maybe egg salad and tuna. Some sides also are possible, said Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton, of Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, who will be the mashgiach of the operation at the start.
Rabbi Gil Leeds, who directs the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at U.C. Berkeley, has been instrumental in working with Cal Dining to get the program going, and he’s very excited about what it will mean for students who keep kosher. Until now, Cal Dining has offered some kosher options — a few packaged items, Passover meals and Shabbat dinners and lunches — but this is definitely a big step forward.
Leeds said summer is the perfect time to launch. “We have lots of visiting scholars and other people who keep kosher who are here in the summer,” he said. “There’s a pretty high demand for kosher options.”
CHEESE FIZZ: In January, I wrote an item about Peninsula-based Milk & Honey Catering starting a program that would feature once-a-month delivery of gourmet kosher cheeses from around the world.
The “Cheese Share Program” was due to start in April, but it never did. Getting kosher certification on cheeses from around the world proved to be difficult, said Milk & Honey owner Jonathan Mizrahi.
“We’re trying to find out why certain cheeses weren’t approved, and we’re waiting for [Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California] to approve more cheeses,” he said. “They have to do research throughout the world.”
The program isn’t kaput, but it’s definitely on hold.
“I can’t do anything,” a frustrated Mizrahi said. “My hands are tied. I had to return everyone’s pre-payments.”
Save room for …
The food section in the Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times recently featured “Three great bites: Bay Area’s best falafel.” Interestingly, all of the choices were quite Israeli. Read more at www.bit.ly/three-falafel.
Gotta Eatta Pita. Launched last year by Tel Aviv–born Yaniv Benaroya, the Chipotle-style eatery has many Israeli touches. In Danville and Pleasant Hill; opening next month in Pleasanton.
Kabab Burger. Owned by Israeli husband-and-wife team Avi and Michaella Ben-Ari, the restaurant scores a solid 4 stars on Yelp for its falafel and other Israeli favorites. Opened two years ago in Lafayette.
Amba. Now a kosher meat restaurant, the Israel-centric eatery still gets many orders for its falafel, crafted by chef Jacky Malul from Israel. In Oakland since 2010.
The Rye Project is open! The new Back East–style Jewish deli from Cleveland native Adam Mesnick, owner of the successful Deli Board in San Francisco, opened July 7 in his former hoagie shop at 180 Seventh St., between Mission and Howard. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Overstuffed deli sandwiches, good rye, smoked-fish platters, New York bagels. For more details, check out my June column (www.bit.ly/hardly-rye-project) or visit www.ryeproject.com … Oren’s Hummus Shop of Palo Alto is opening its second location on Monday, July 14, a co-owner reports. It’s at 126 Castro St. in Mountain View … The S.F.-based La Falafel food truck, which served Israeli cuisine and was owned by Tel Aviv native Nissim Ninio, no longer exists. It started in late 2012 and had a marquee gig at Israel in the Gardens in 2013, but after sinking a lot of money into the pet project, Ninio called it quits a few months ago. “It was too much headache with not enough revenue, so unfortunately I had to give it up,” said Ninio, who owns an auto-body shop in the Mission District … San Francisco’s House of Bagels, which has had success with its tasty croissant-bagel hybrid called a cragel, introduced a new variety last week: the Nutella cragel. That joins the plain, cinnamon toast and jalapeño cheese varieties at 5030 Geary Blvd. … Tickets are on sale for “Biblical Botany Brunch” at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 10 at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco. Open to the public, the session will be a tour of Jewish history through food and drink led by ethnobotanist Jon Greenberg of TorahFlora.org. It also will include a good amount of eating — bagels, the popular Israeli dish matbucha (cooked tomatoes and bell peppers), baba ghanoush and Turkish pepper salad, plus much more. For ticket prices and more information, call (415) 586-8833 or visit www.bij.org … The 27th annual Jewish Food Festival on the Monterey Peninsula is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 24 at Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel Valley. Visit www.carmelbethisrael.org … After halting its lunch service to reorganize a bit, the kosher Jerusalem Grill and Bar in Campbell has added a new “express lunch menu” on weekday afternoons, in addition to its dinner service … The Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto has changed its Friday farmers market hours to 12 to 5 p.m. Food trucks are on hand from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every week, including a scheduled July 18 appearance by Old World Food Truck … Kosher sushi startup L’Chaim Sushi got some nice pub recently in the San Francisco Chronicle. Check out the article at www.bit.ly/lchaim-article. Also, L’Chaim Sushi was set to hold its first Live Kosher Sushi Bar this week, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 10 and 11 at Oakland Kosher Foods.