Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
For Rabbi Yosef Langer, the opening of a new kosher restaurant along San Francisco’s Sixth Street corridor is another step toward creating his long-envisioned “Jewish thoroughfare,” complete with a synagogue and kosher eateries to draw people in. For the rest of us, it’s just damn good shwarma and falafel.
After years of delays, Limonnana has just opened for delivery and for pickup on Sixth Street near Howard Street, not far from the kosher bakery Frena. That instantly doubles the number of kosher establishments on the rapidly changing street that extends from Market to Harrison.
The owners are Israeli natives Ariel Sharabi and Raz Herman, and the name is the Hebrew word for lemonade with mint.
Herman is an art consultant whose father was a chef, at one point cooking for an Israeli president. Sharabi has some of his own food pedigree, using recipes that have been in his family for over 90 years.
Though he came to the Bay Area to play soccer in the early ’80s, Sharabi soon opened two restaurants in San Francisco, Falafel King and Pita King; neither lasted very long. He went on to work in tourism and founded the first van-share company in the country, Airport Express, working primarily with hotels. He says he got the idea from the Israeli shared taxi, the sherut.
His maternal grandparents immigrated to Israel from Yemen, and his father’s family has lived in Jerusalem since the 1800s. He claims that falafel originated among Jews in Yemen who then brought it to Israel (others believe it originated among the Copt community in Egypt, but made with fava beans rather than garbanzos). However, Claudia Roden, author of “The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York,” says that Yemenite Jews were the first to sell it as street food in Israel after the founding of the state.
Sharabi decided to go back into the food business for two reasons. The first was at the suggestion of Langer, who until the novel coronavirus came along led services in his Positively 6th Street Chabad center and asked Sharabi to consider opening a kosher restaurant. The second was because Sharabi got tired of seeing what passes for hummus in this country. To many Israelis, what people buy in plastic tubs at their local grocery store is not an acceptable version, nor is a lot of what passes for Middle Eastern food.
“All of a sudden people are realizing it’s healthy,” he said. “Falafel is a poor person’s food, but now people are realizing it’s a superfood and people are going crazy about the stuff.”
Sharabi didn’t want to give away too many secrets, but he said his falafels have generous amounts of cilantro and parsley. They are also exceptionally moist without being the least bit greasy. They are the real deal.
“It needs to be green, green, green,” he said. There is also cumin, coriander and a bit of crushed pepper to give it “just the right zip.”
Meanwhile, the shwarma, meat on a spit that originates from Turkey, is made of chicken thighs layered with lamb fat for an extra boost of flavor. An original spice blend has 18 spices — “chai” or “life” in Jewish numerology — layered with the meat, and the spit is there for all to see, with meat sliced as needed.
The pitas come from Israel, and Sharabi opened one for me to peer inside and see not only its air pockets but also its just-right thickness. “In America, the pitas you get often split from the liquid,” he said, shaking his head.
The menu will be familiar to anyone who has frequented food stands in Israel. Fried eggplant slices, check. Fries, check. Tahini sauce, check. Super-creamy hummus, check. Z’hug to fire up your sandwich, check. Israeli salad and several other salads, like a cabbage slaw and Moroccan carrot, check. There are three soups and a few desserts, none of which I tried. The only surprising menu item is a hot dog, there to appease finicky American children.
Limonnana isn’t the least bit fancy, but previewing it felt like a special occasion. Not only had I not been to the city since “Before Times,” as I’ve seen the pre-pandemic era called, but sitting in the window in an otherwise empty restaurant with only the owners, chef and a photographer, cradling a puffy pita in my hands, with the spices and z’hug and juicy meat all commingling to make up such a delicious whole, nearly brought me to tears. In that moment I realized just how much I missed this kind of simple pleasure that is so out of reach right now; the falafel and shwarma could have tasted like cardboard and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
It’s been four years since I was last in Israel, and I don’t remember having a shwarma on that trip, so I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate one. And since I have no idea when I’ll feel safe enough to go back, eating such a memorable shwarma on Sixth Street felt absolutely transporting.
I don’t use that word that often. But when a dish is so reminiscent of a sense of place that you can close your eyes and feel as if you’re there — that deserves some high praise.
With a 17-hour plane trip plus two weeks of quarantine after arrival in Israel not in the cards for most of us right now, a falafel or shwarma from Limonnana is a pretty good substitute.