The most extraordinary food experience I’ve had recently had little to do with the food. It had to do with the people.
That is not to disparage chef Mona Leena’s cooking chops in any way; her food is absolutely delicious. But if, say, Martians beamed down into the Tenderloin one Saturday night to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by observing Arab and Jewish Americans, they would be perplexed. Entering Shuk Shuka, the new Middle Eastern pop-up dinner, the Martians would come across a friendly, festive atmosphere, soulful live music, a dabke line dance so infectious that nearly everyone seemed happy to join in, and communal tables of people eating, drinking and laughing.
The observant aliens would also notice that in the loud din of people speaking in Arabic, Hebrew and English, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between Arabs and Jews.
This celebratory environment, bringing together guests whose people traditionally are at war with each other, was precisely the dream that Inon Tzadok, an Israeli Jew, and Odai Ammar, a Palestinian American, had in mind when they envisioned Shuk Shuka. Their pop-up endeavor has been so successful that they’re ready to take it to the next level and open a restaurant in the coming months.
Tzadok, 37, grew up in Jerusalem in an Orthodox Jewish family of Yemenite descent, speaking Hebrew and Arabic. When he was 14 he started working in a shwarma restaurant, where a Palestinian chef taught him how to cut vegetables. He continued to work in the hospitality industry, eventually becoming a bartender at the luxury Mamilla Hotel.
“Because I’ve worked in so many restaurant kitchens, working with Arabs or Palestinians was something normal for me, and we never had conflict,” he said. “I always felt we had more in common than not.”
Tzadok came to the Bay Area five years ago and started a home improvement business, but he knew that when the time was right, he would open a restaurant serving Israeli food. As he reflected on this melting pot of cuisines — influenced by immigrants from throughout the Jewish diaspora and by dishes like hummus and falafel shared by Arabs and Jews alike — he realized that Israeli food could serve a higher purpose.
“I wanted to be an ambassador for my country, and I also wanted to make social change,” he said.
Enter Ammar. Tzadok spread the word that he was looking for a Palestinian partner for his venture, and a friend introduced them. They clicked right away. Ammar, 28, settled in the Bay Area three years ago after being raised in Florida by parents who came from a small village outside of Ramallah. When he was 9, his mother took Ammar and his brother to Amman, Jordan, for six years (their father stayed behind and worked, and they visited him during the summers).
Going from West Palm Beach to Amman was a huge culture shock. Once 9/11 happened, Ammar became “the American kid and the enemy at the same time.” Meanwhile, during summers with his father in the U.S., Ammar was quickly dubbed “the Muslim terrorist. I had a bit of an identity crisis at a pretty young age,” he said.
In college, one of Ammar’s closest friends was Jewish and they ended up becoming housemates. “We called our apartment Jerusalem,” he said. “That really sparked something, this purpose that whenever I meet a Jew or Israeli, it’s my duty to share this possibility of building a bridge of love and connection and celebrating our similarities. True change will happen one person at a time.”
With his partner in place, Tzadok was ready to hire a chef. He was the youngest in his family, with three older sisters, and knew he wanted a woman in the position. He found Leena, 29, on the meal-sharing platform Feastly, where she had been presenting pop-up dinners. She worked her way up from restaurants like Jardinière — where she talked her way into the kitchen after applying for a barista job — and Serpentine. Her parents were Palestinian Christian immigrants from Ramallah and she grew up in San Jose.
“California-grown with a Palestinian twist is how I describe myself and my food,” she said.
Israeli Jewish chef Mica Talmor has been serving in a mentoring and consulting chef role. (Talmor was chef-owner of the popular Israeli restaurant Ba-Bite, which closed in Oakland last summer, as well as the catering company Savoy Events.)
While the food at Shuk Shuka definitely has Middle Eastern flavors, it is unlike traditional restaurants in its genre, where meat is the star attraction. Most of the menu is vegetarian, although two standouts at the April pop-up were the lamb with hummus and the Moroccan cigars with a bastilla-like filling of chicken, almonds and cinnamon. Hummus lovers take note: Two of the signature dishes are beet hummus and avocado hummus.
Tzadok and Ammar will continue doing monthly pop-ups and plan to add Sunday brunches until they find a space where they can open by the end of the year. (They are looking for investors and have appealed to, among others, a Bay Area Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group whose participants might be interested in supporting a local Israeli-Palestinian project.) They envision a fast-casual kind of place in the city, where Saturday nights will resemble the pop-ups, with live music and table service.
“The food is simple, fresh and healthy, not expensive, but quality, and it’s not trying too hard,” said Tzadok. “The energy is fun and light.” The name Shuk Shuka is a play on shakshuka, the tomato-based stew brought to Israel by Tunisian Jews. (Shuk means “market” in Hebrew and Arabic.)
Tzadok and Ammar are consummate hosts who seem to be having just as much fun as their guests. But the greater purpose of their venture is always in the forefront of their minds.
“I love seeing that switch in a person’s eyes, when they realize the person he saw as the ‘other’ his whole life is just like him,” said Ammar. “I hope we can become role models for people who didn’t think this could be possible. We want to change the narrative.”