Dallas frequently gets knocked by newcomers for its lack of a good Jewish deli. The response, usually, is to cite Deli News, the north side’s outpost of New-York-style bagels and pastrami on rye, but another North Dallas landmark offers an equally old-fashioned experience from another center of Jewish culture: Israel.
Milk & Honey Jerusalem Market & Grill, which has occupied a spot in an unassuming Coit Road strip mall for more than eight years, is serious about its adherence to Jewish tradition. The store closes Friday before sundown, to light candles for the sabbath, and stays closed all day Saturday. All the foods are kosher; the grocery section even stocks kosher instant ramen.
The crowd at Milk & Honey feels like a group of reliable regulars. At one table, two men in yarmulkes debate preparations of schnitzels; at another, the market’s staff mingle with their friends. And it must be restaurant regulars who are responsible for the decor, a series of bizarre pictures of pita breads on which people have Sharpied silly faces. One pita is picking its own nose. Each picture is named, too; look out for the pita named McLovin.
The front of the market is a deli and grill counter, where you can order meats like pastrami, bologna, kosher salami and various kinds of turkey, including a turkey pastrami that is a well-intentioned stab at the real thing. The turkey’s lighter flavor may not be right, but the spice rub is accurate. When you’re halfway through a deli sandwich on a toasted roll, you stare at a cliff face of meat, onions and tomato. The sandwich is two bites tall.
This deli sandwich ($9.99), by the way, marks the biggest difference between Milk & Honey and the New-York-style Deli News. Pastrami on rye is not an option at Milk & Honey. But pastrami on pita is no problem.
Some of the best falafel in the Dallas area comes from the Milk & Honey grill counter, arriving fresh and hot with a crisp external layer that crackles between your teeth. Falafel is served on a plate with hummus, or in a pita sandwich. The hummus is great, topped with generous drizzles of olive oil and tahini and a big pinch of red pepper. But you really can’t go wrong, because the pita sandwiches are absolutely stuffed to the brim, to the point where they sort of look like giant bread footballs.
Alongside the deli meats, a star of the sandwich list is the market’s excellent shawarma ($6.50 half sandwich, $11.99 whole sandwich or $13.99 plate). The crisply sour pickles are scene-stealers any time they appear on a plate or in a pita. This is not the case for french fries, which seem to come out of trucked-in bags, so make sure to ask for Milk & Honey’s superb hot sauce. Harissa, a fiery red paste of chilies, garlic, tomato paste and spices, is just the thing to give you a nice kick in the teeth. It ought to be served by default.
Many of these meals can also be “plated” for a couple extra bucks. That plating fee isn’t just for the dishwasher’s wages: It gets you a portion size that would satisfy a linebacker, with a side salad and enough pita slices to assemble your own sandwiches. The chicken schnitzel plate, brought to Israel by German exiles, features breading mixed with spices and sesame seeds. There was disagreement around the table over whether that spicing was enough, all the more reason to request a cup of harissa.
While your food is prepared, or after you eat, walk through the back section of Milk & Honey, a terrific little grocery store with a wide ethnic selection. It is home to both the expected — olives, Mediterranean cheeses, tahini — and the more surprising, like the kosher instant ramen. Or take “soup almonds.” They’re tiny bread chunks to garnish your soup, like small, round, yellow oyster crackers or croutons. Soup almonds do not, in fact, contain any almonds.
Kashkaval, available in the store’s refrigerators, is a Middle Eastern sheep’s milk cheese, semi-hard and a refreshing fixture of many a Turkish breakfast platter. Jarred tahini can help you make your own hummus from scratch, which is easier than it sounds, and nana mint tea offers a taste of an afternoon in the Mediterranean sun. Buy a tub of halva, a subtly sweet sesame-based dessert available in vanilla, chocolate or with whole pistachios, and cut it into slices. (If you want a trial size, Milk & Honey stocks halva candy bars, some of them coated in chocolate.) The freezer has some eccentric snacks and TV dinners, too.
An entire wall is devoted to candy, which is just how we’d design a grocery store, if we were building one. There are Israeli chocolate bars with embedded Pop Rocks, Kinder Buenos, chocolate-covered halva, bags of cinnamon rugelach, sesame bars and marzipan. Bamba is a snack brand that resembles lighter, airier Cheetos, made out of ground peanuts. Along with halva and sesame bars, Bamba seems to be part of a campaign to make snack foods sound healthier so you can pretend it’s OK to eat more of them. As a whole, the snack wall is enough to kill a diet.
The Milk & Honey experience is an old-fashioned one in every sense. There’s something very traditional about the grill counter, which sticks to a handful of classics and does them right. “Service” here means somebody taking down your order and inviting you to grab your own drink. The staff feels like one big family, and they trust you to poke around the grocery section before you’ve paid for lunch.
Milk & Honey has lessened its ambitions over the years, sadly. There used to be an extensive baking operation, selling not just homemade pita but whole cases of sticky buns and other desserts. This is no longer in evidence. The grill’s first-rate shawarma is now usually available only on weekdays. And, if McLovin is any indication, it’s been a few years since they had a “name that pita” competition.
It’s time to replace McLovin with a Sharpied pita named Poe Dameron. But, in more important ways, Milk & Honey Jerusalem Market & Grill keeps alive traditions that we shouldn’t overlook, and which diners can appreciate regardless of their faiths.