Welcome to a column wherein we track down a cook good with an accent and milk them for all their best kept eating secrets.
Ghazwan Al-Sharif—a native of Tikrit, Iraq—describes his kitchen as "a place to play." Born into what he describes as a "foodie family," Al-Sharif's father was a diplomat, so he spent most of his early childhood in the Czech Republic and London. He moved to Iraq at the age of 15, where he eventually ran a restaurant. In 2003, when the U.S. troops came into the country, Al-Sharif was tapped as a translator. Eventually, his people turned on him for taking the job and he was forced to flee the country. It's a long, tragic and complicated story that has been told partially by New America Media here, and more recently by the Chronicle here. Al-Sharif was relocated to the Bay Area by the International Rescue Committe, and at last finds himself home and safe, living in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. He currently works as a PR and Production Manager for Project Open Hand, a job that incudes cheffing, dinner and events organization. Food is still one of Al-Sharif's favorite subjects and he was excited to share the San Francisco bites that bring back good memories of his life in Iraq.
1) Rose water, cheeses and syrups at Jerusalem Market (1100 Sutter St., Lower Nob Hill)
As a chef, I can say that everything is very well-priced and almost everything is from the Middle East here, even cheeses. One of the things I use a lot is rose water and pomegranante syrup. They also have date syrup which is almost impossible to find here. It's really healthy for blood sugar levels and the sweetness is all natural. I use it in a lot of things, expecially a very traditional Iraqi winter snack of black tea-infused turnips accented with a little sea salt and date syrup. I do it for the volunteers at Open Hand.
2) Kunafeh at Jannah (1775 Fulton St., Western Addition)
The chef here is from Mosul and he makes great baklava and kunafeh, desserts that remind me of the good days, growing up. Kunafeh is like a sweet creamy cheese dessert that he tops with dried angel hair noodle crumbles colored with red food coloring. He also makes dolmas in the Iraqi way, which is with meat. Their turnip dip is great too.
3) Falafel scoops and fresh coffee at Samiramis Imports (2990 Mission St., The Mission)
This was the first Middle Eastern grocery store in San Francisco. The are the only one I know that sell falafel scoops to form falafel balls the traditional way. They also sell the special coffee pots from the Middle East and coffee mix with fresh beans and cardamom which is the typical Arabic coffee.
4) Hookah at Hookah SF (419 O'Farrel St., Tenderloin)
Most hookah places are over-priced in San Francisco, but here you can smoke a hookah for around $7.
5) Kebab meat at Salama Halal Meats (604 Geary Blvd., Tenderloin)
I don't eat kosher but they do nice halal meats here. A large Yemeni Muslim community lives in the Tenderloin. The halal butchers let the blood drain after they slaughter the meat, so its considered pure. The have good, nice fresh lamb and they'll make beef, lamb or chicken kebabs for you if you ask them too.
6) Hummus and chicken shwarma at Cafe Mystique (604 Geary Blvd., Castro)
As a chef, it's hard for me to pay these prices, but the owners are very nice people from Jordan here, so I go from time to time. They do a nice hummus and homemade shwarma, a chicken sandwich on lavash bread. They also do fava beans mashed in the Egyptian style.
7) The Middle Eastern menu at Medjool (2522 Mission St.)
I was really surprised by the Lebanese food items on their menu. The owners are Lebanese and I was shocked by their grilled persimmon appetizer. I give it a thumbs up.
8) Homemade pate and falafel at Rossi's (426 Castro St.)
This is a deli store owned by a family from Palestine. They do homemade pate and homemade falafel to go on salads with delicious hummus and tabuleh!