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Feb 14, 2011 07:49 PM

Authentic Syrian Food (and delicious fusion food like kibbeh burgers!) at Palmyra in the Lower Haight [SF]

Went to Noc Noc for their beer week event tonight (Speakeasy's Ritual Coffee Porter=incredible), and needed some food afterwards. Decided to check out the new Palmyra, which replaced the Burger Joint at Haight and Pierce. After noticing some not too commonly seen dishes, I started chatting with the owner. It's a family-run business with two brothers doing most of the work (their mom coms in in the morning and does prep work). Their kibbeh is the real thing - almost as good as my grandmother's - as is the mujadara and the hummus.

Wanting to try something different, I got the "Mediterranean Burger", which is basically just a "kibbeh patty" with the usual burger fixings. Excellent taste, and great value at $4.95. I asked about some more dishes that I was hoping for, some of which he said were better suited for home-cooking (the reason why my grandmother never opened a restaurant), like lebeneya (a labor-intensive kibbeh-yogurt soup). He did mention that they were going to start doing monthly specials, and that the first would be koosa, an incredible stuffed squash dish that I've never seen offered at restaurants, and MAYBE kibbeh naya ("kibbeh tartare"), but was naturally reluctant to do so.

While there are many great middle eastern restaurants in the Bay Area, this is the first one I've seen which is specifically Syrian. They're open every day something crazy like 7am-12am; they even offer some Syrian breakfast items which I was not familiar with but would love to check out.

Extremely nice people too, they take a lot of pride in what they do and love talking to their customers.

Noc Noc
557 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117

Burger Joint
242 King St, San Francisco, CA 94107

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  1. Great. I'll have to try the food. I stopped in to grab a coffee on Saturday morning. The coffee wasn't made yet (around 10 am) and the very nice owners made a fresh batch.

    Unfortunately it was quite literally the worst coffee I've tasted. Very bitter and acrid (!). I had to throw out the whole cup after a small sip. It did give my wife and I something to joke about though - it was very memorable - just not in a good way.

    The food sound interesting though - and I imagine it would't be too hard to fix the coffee issues and bring in up to a drinkable standard (which in the lower haight is actually quite low - we could really use some nth wave coffee around here).

    Agree that the people working the place were very friendly.

    19 Replies
    1. re: boris_qd

      i guess that's not super surprising - you can tell they're very concerned about making things accessible to their clientele - my guess would be that they tried to "americanize" Arabic coffee and came out with an even worse product. there's quite a few things on their menu that are clearly there just because they probably feel its standard/necessary to have at a cafe (croissants, tuna salad, etc.), wouldn't surprise me if those eventually get dropped - as i predict that their syrian items will be the most popular.

      a note about lower haight coffee - while it's not quite the lower haight (depending on whom you ask) - the new cafe at oak and divis serves blue bottle, although the berkeley farms milk tends to ruin a lot of their espresso drinks

      1. re: vulber

        In fact that's where I went to get my replacement cup. They do an ok job with the blue bottle coffee but the service can be disorganized (there were a bunch of people behind the counter doing very little but they still managed to forget about my order).

      2. re: boris_qd

        Oh, nice! My stint in Damascus a couple years back was some of the best eating I've had. I'll definitely have to check it out.

        Any idea if they have muhammara on the menu?

        1. re: josquared

          can't remember off hand - but they're very open to customer feedback

          1. re: josquared

            No muhammara on the menu.

            Remembering many fantastic meals in restaurants and on the street in Syria a year ago, we went right over to see whether this would come close...

            Starting with the positive, this is a nice neighborhood middle east restaurant, inexpensive and friendly. The food is quite OK, but not worth a trip across town.

            As far as authentic ... the hummus had the right texture but the cumin flavor was much more evident than the subtle and wonderful hummus I couldn't get enough of all over Syria. Not bad, but not as good as the hummus at Good Frikkin' Chicken, which is excellent and very close to the Syrian staple. GFC is run by Jordanians, not far from Damascus.

            We had a Kibbi platter. The Kibbi (meat and pine nut stuffed fried mashed crack wheat patties) were good, but the stuffing lacked any real spicing.

            Also had a Chicken Shawerma. Our expectations were high as we practically lived off luncheon (and dinner) street snacks of Chicken Schawerma all over Syria. I am afraid this was not it. Although there was something resembling a mini shawerma rotating in the kitchen, when sliced it came off as dried chunks of boring chicken, not the juicy flavorful slices we still dream of.

            The very nice owner gave us a dessert, sweet and delicious, but I did not get the name. They have several version and this dessert may be the high point. Not surprising as sweets in Syria are amazing.

            Palmyra is a wonderful old Roman city ruin, a major tourist site, which in its modern incarnation has the worst food in Syria. That's not a good omen.

            Good Frikin Chicken (Goood Frikin’ Chicken)
            10 29th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

            700 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117

            1. re: Thomas Nash

              Tried Palmyra last night, and we had a similar reaction to the Chicken Shawerma. Not as succulent as we'd hoped, it hadn't picked up any flavor from the pomegranates at the top of the spit, and since it was cooked on a gas-fired spit it didn't have the nice smokiness of charcoal.

              The Baba Ghanoush wasn't as smoky as the more typical version found around here, and had quite a bit of fine-chopped herbs mixed in, mostly parsley. We asked the owner if that was a typical Syrian style, and he said yes. It wasn't very strongly seasoned, but it improved a bit with some of the garlic yogurt spread included with the shawerma.

              I forget the exact name of my main dish, but it was spiced ground beef in oblong patties that had been roasted, with a tomato sauce. The sauce was pretty unseasoned, the beef strongly seasoned with lots of clove and other spices that reminded me of a ground spice mix I bought in a Persian market. I wished the ground beef was less lean or cooked shy of well-done.

              Overall, I'd agree with Thomas' evaluation that this is a nice neighborhood middle eastern restaurant with a Syrian angle. Not a destination yet.

              1. re: SteveG

                I mostly agree with these two reports on the chicken and hummus. Went here tonight very hungry and got the half chicken plate. The chicken is a little dry and the skin doesn't have much of the tang that I love in roast chicken that has been marinaded with herbs and citrus juice, like GFC's chicken. However, I think their garlic sauce is better than GFC's. The baklava is also good, though they do not make it there - it's made by a local bakery.

                At $8.99 for a half chicken, hummus, small salad, and pita, and $1.50 for small baklava pieces, this place is still a very good value even if the chow could up its game a bit.

                Agreed that they are very nice - I think the owner might have meant to comp the baklava, then, after realizing I'd already paid for it at the register, sent over a large cup of black tea to drink with dessert.

            2. re: josquared

              Haven't purchased it for a couple years, but I've enjoyed the muhammara from Haig's.

              Haig's Delicacies
              642 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                True on that one Thomas - I took a trip out to Palmyra one weekend while I was there in Syria; we tried sussing out some local knowledge about where to eat, but it was merely okay at best (the cat population seemed to be enjoying the scraps that people were tossing their way, though.)

                I'll have to stop by Haig's next time I'm in that area and give it a try Melanie. I also made a trip up to Aleppo, but due to some stormy weather and others in my party battling various cold & flu bugs, we didn't make it out much to sample the cuisine. One of the highlights, however, was the muhammara at the Beit Sissi.

                1. re: josquared

                  We kind of overdosed on muhammara in Syria. It was the creamy subtle hummus I remember and the incredible chicken shawerma. I believe the shawerma was always rotating on a gyros like gas fire. I never saw charcoal. And Syrian Baba Ganouj surprised as being more like a chunky eggplant salad than we are used to. Still dreaming of some real Syrian cooks doing their thing here in SF. Aleppo and Der ez Zoor are a long way to go for chicken shawerma and a Syrian sweet store! At least here you don't get followed by the (not so) secret police...

                  1. re: Thomas Nash

                    I had the opposite experience - I kinda' OD'd on hummus and shawerma, but never to the point where if someone offered one up, I could refuse. Through work, we got set up with Anas Chicken at least a couple times a week, where their roast chicken, shawerma, and potato crisps were big time winners.

                    The places I went to in Damascus really didn't have any muhammara, so that was something I kept a look for up when we headed more up north, so maybe that's why it was more noteworthy in my mind.

                    The most memorable street eat I had wasn't a shawerema but the most delicious falafel wrap I could ever imagine in the Old City- just some little place on the corner late on a Friday night near St. Anania's church, just hanging out on the street and chatting with some co-workers after a typically hectic work week.

                    1. re: josquared

                      This is kind of getting off-thread, but may be informative. I think muhammara is more of an Aleppo thing though I think we had it also in Damascus. I remember the falafel place in the Old City you mention -- I couldn't believe how the guy could form perfect falafel dough balls by hand and then drop them into the fat. Every one came out identical. Chairman Bao is great, but we still need street food like that guy in Damascus!

                      Chairman Bao
                      San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                      1. re: Thomas Nash

                        what about liba falafel? (haven't been, but have heard generally good things)

                        1. re: vulber

                          i've eaten there twice. both times the falafel were nice, moist, and tasty, but the pita was hard and dry, the first time more so than the second.

                          i tried the sweet potato fries once and they turned out limp and anemic. i'm a cilantro tastes soapy guy so i skipped the cilantro garlic for the fries. that probably help for non-cilantro-phobes

                          1. re: drewskiSF

                            i kinda wish they'd drop the non-middle eastern items (like sweet potato fries), which are clearly not their strength, but it might take a while...

                            overall, i'm pretty sure this is their first restaurant, and they're still struggling to figure out how to translate homecooking into a restaurant setting

                            1. re: drewskiSF

                              drewskiSF - are you talking about Palmyra or Liba?

                              1. re: boris_qd

                                i was responding to vulber's question about Liba Falafel. i have not eaten at Palmyra.

                                sorry if that wasn't clear.

                  2. re: Melanie Wong

                    I get it whenever I'm out there, and it's still wonderful. It's sold elsewhere in the city--maybe Whole Foods?

                    1. re: Windy

                      Thanks, Whole Foods does sell the hummus, maybe the muhammara too.

              2. I'd love to be able to order kousa or kibbeh nayah. Someone please ask 'em to make atayef too.

                700 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117

                9 Replies
                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  the plans for koosa seemed pretty likely. will definitely go back next month. not sure about atayef, but they did have kunefe that looked very good; i also sampled a delicious almond dessert that I wasn't familiar with.

                  i'm not holding my breath on the kibbeh naya though....

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    Now that it's Ramadan, has anyone checked to see if Palmyra is or will make atayef?

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      do you know that it's muslim-owned? (many syrians, like myself, are eastern orthodox)

                      1. re: vulber

                        Don't know as I've not been to Palmyra nor Taj. When it first opened, some of the meats were halal but not all.

                        Edited to add: Palmyra is not making atayef now but might in the future.

                          1. re: bigwheel042

                            That may be. But as I posted in the other thread, the guy I talked to at Taj Pizza said Palmyra was owned by his family members.

                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                              Interesting...the operation seemed completely confused/chaotic when I walked in about a month ago. Even more so than other counter joints in this stretch of the TL. I think the Syrian ice creams and so forth are off the menu and a lot of the menu items have been changed/discontinued. I wonder if they transferred management to a different branch of the family or if they are just retooling to focus on pizza.

                              1. re: bigwheel042

                                Shoot, I wanted to try the ice cream. The online menu has a selection of sfiha, gone too?

                        1. re: vulber

                          The flyer for the 2010 version of St Nicholas Middle Eastern Food Festival listed katayef.

                          This year's is coming up next month (see page 4). Would you know if katayef/qatayef/atayef is still part of the menu?

                    2. With the salad talk on another thread, it made me wonder - anyone know if these folks have a fattoush on their menu?

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: josquared

                        Was there today for lunch: I didn't see fattoush on the menu, they had a "cucumber tomato" salad that I gather had a viniagrette. I had the half chicken plate, which came with salad, nice creamy hummus, powerful garlic sauce and warm pitas. I didn't think the chicken was dry *at all*. It was moist and succulent, really fantastic with the garlic sauce, wrapped in a bit of pita. The pitas aren't as good as Goood Frikin Chicken's, but the chicken and garlic sauce are much much better. A cup of Arabic tea on the wasn't that great, not much flavor. And I was sad that the little market next to Axum that sells the English products wasn't open, as I was hoping to get some Branston Pickle and maybe a Crunchie Bar while I was out. But still, Palmyra, fantastic lunch for $11.

                        1. re: pointybird

                          Come to think of it, now I remember asking about the fattoush, and he said it wouldn't work very well if it were made ahead of time because then all the bread would get soggy (although i personally prefer the bread to be soggy in fattoush).

                      2. I finally went here last night, and really really liked it.
                        I'm so glad because this is walking distance for me and I will go here all the time now.
                        For the record, I am also walking distance to La Mediteranee, and I never go there because I don't think they are very good.

                        Palmyra is run by some very nice people, and the food is clearly made with genuine recipes and care. I will be returning and basically want to try everything on the menu.
                        But here's what we had last night:

                        Cucumber salad -- lettuce, cucumber, tomato with basically lemon and parsley. Very simple, but also very genuine tasting. Everything was cold and crunchy, so it worked. Not a special dish per se, but still a good refreshing starter.

                        Dolma -- this was my bf's pick, I don't care for them much. But as dolma go, i think they were good. Plus they came with 2 little pieces of tasty pickled turnip (or beet? they were pink).

                        Pita -- they gave us some pita bread with the apps. This was really amazing. Thin and toasted. Probably home made, but not sure.

                        Kibbi -- I was really jealous of my bf on this one. I only got one bite but can't wait to return and have my own plate. The kibbe were coated with cracked wheat that was fried. So it was like 4 huge savory m&ms. Biting through the coating you got a moist meaty center. Fantastic. This came with hummus (the style I like, very smooth with a lotof tahini) and salad and pita. A real winner.

                        Palmyra Kebab (beef) -- this was really tasty also. beef chunks in a tomatoey stewy thing with rice. Very good, and I'd go back for it except I really want that kibbi next time.

                        Turkish coffee - lots of cardamom. Best I ever had.

                        Honey cake -- I was going to wait til next time to order this, but he brought us one free with the coffee (!!!). Okay so you need to understand that this is one of my all time favorite desserts. Just those plain squares of cake soaked with honey and nuts on top. This may be the best of this I've ever had. The proprieter says they make it fresh there every day, and it shows.

                        Overall, great food. Of course the atmosphere is Burger Joint's old place, so it's nothing fancy, but it's nice and bright. so it's good for going solo if you feel like eating and reading as well.

                        This is definitely going in my neighborhood rotation.

                        1. Thanks to this rec, I've been a few times, and really like Palmyra.

                          Their rotisserie chicken is juicy and flavorful--much better than Good Fricken Chicken and less expensive. $9 gets you half a chicken with hummus, pita, and salad. Ideally the chickens would have just been finished cooking.

                          Their hummus is smooth and creamy. I usually hate hummus, but here I couldn't get enough of it.

                          The owners are welcoming and helpful, and it's a sunny spot to hang out. I tried the honey cake Pauliface recommended and loved it; it is very sweet, so best with strong coffee, or shared with a friend.