If you do a Google search for “Middle Eastern cuisine in Champaign-Urbana,” the number one result seems to always be Jerusalem Restaurant. I had devised a lovely plan to order from Jerusalem Restaurant the weekend before my birthday — and even had my menu items planned out — only to find out that they are not open on weekends. It was fine; I’m a flexible person. So on the following rainy, cold Friday afternoon, I rewarded myself with their delicious fare.
Because Jerusalem Restaurant doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page, it was a little difficult to figure out the operating hours as well as an accurate menu. I went off what I found on Yelp for menu items, but warning: the phone number listed on Yelp is not accurate. I tried another number from menuwithprice.com, and the first time I called there was an odd message that played. Just 30 seconds later, someone from the restaurant called me back, and I placed my order over the phone. It was ready for pick up 30 minutes later. If you’re flustered by the possibility of not having an accurate menu online, you are able to order in person. When I picked up my order, there were six or seven other patrons there, either waiting on their order or eating inside.
The restaurant is on the edge of Wright and Healey, one block north of Green Street. When I walked in, I saw tables lining both edges of the space with the order counter just ahead. When I picked up my food, there was only one man working, but the ambiance was relaxed and not overly busy. I enlisted the help of my husband to eat some of the many food items I ordered. We decided on chicken shawarma, the vegetarian platter, soup, falafel, beef gyro, and baklava.
The chicken shawarma entrée ($11.99) boasted a huge pile of flavorfully-spiced chicken over yellow rice and two different types of bean sides. There was a red, salsa-looking sauce underneath the chicken that added to the warm spiciness of the dish. The container was bursting with food and could have easily fed two people. It came with a choice of soup or salad, so we chose soup. It wasn’t clear what type of soup this was, but it was delicious.
It had a thicker consistency, perhaps the ingredients had been cooked and then blended. Its flavors were not overwhelming, and no one flavor stood out over others. It gave me chicken soup vibes which I did not hate on that cold afternoon.
Next was the vegetarian combination plate ($9.99) which could easily have been an appetizer platter or meal for one or two (in my case, one person). My plate came with two falafel, four stuffed grape leaves, and some fried potato pieces on top of a generous serving of hommoss and baba ghanouj alongside a huge serving of tabbouleh salad (finely chopped fresh parsley, spring onions, diced tomatoes with cracked wheat, lemon juice, and oil) and fatouch (diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, spring onions, chopped fresh parsley, mixed with lemon juice, and oil).
The falafel and grape leaves acted as wonderful vehicles for the massive amount of hommoss and baba ghanouj I inhaled. The hommoss was silky smooth and full of garlicky, lemony flavor — but it wasn’t overpowering. The baba ghanouj was a little thicker in texture, and in my opinion, didn’t have as much flavor as the hommoss. My husband really liked stealing spoonfuls of it to eat with the chicken shawarma, though.
The falafel appetizer ($5.25) was simple and straightforward: four falafel balls fried to perfection with what I’m assuming was a tahini sauce with a little hot sauce added in. The falafel, while flavorful, wasn’t overwhelming or underwhelming. It was just right. The tahini sauce was the real winner here. It was tangy, and the little addition of hot sauce added a nice zip. In retrospect, I wish I had more of that sauce to add to all the items we ordered.
To be honest, I think my winner of the meal had to be the beef gyro ($5.30). My jam in college was to eat all the gyros I could get my hands on, so suffice to say, I was very excited about this item. While I was waiting for my food, I watched a few gyros being made. First, the pita was warmed, and then, the top is cut off, creating a nice, warm envelope for whatever is being put inside. The genius move that they make is that the top portion of pita that was removed was then stuffed into the bottom of the pita pocket to catch all of the delicious saucy goodness, so the rest of the pita doesn’t get soggy. Is this how everyone does it? It blew my mind, and will now forever live in my arsenal of food tricks.
The gyro we ordered was stuffed full of thick-sliced beef, tomatoes, onions, and sauce (possibly the same sauce from the falafel). Upon biting, I could tell that the beef had been well seasoned with various warm spices. It felt like I was taking a bite into Christmas — or the heartwarming holiday of your choice. I found the sandwich divine, but if you’re like my husband and don’t like warm tomatoes, you may want to remove those before digging in.
Last (but very much not least), the baklava ($1.25). Rarely will I eat any sort of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine without also ordering baklava to end my meal. I have yet to be able to find a single thing wrong with layers upon layers of buttery, flaky filo dough encasing finely chopped spiced walnuts, all basted with syrup. This baklava was no exception. Now I know why when I ordered one lone piece of baklava earlier that evening, the man taking my order said, “Only one?” Rookie mistake.
Overall, Jerusalem Restaurant is worth the visit. The food is packed with flavor, time, and effort. It doesn’t hurt that you get a ton of food, so if you’re not sure what you want, bring a friend and share. Currently, there is quite a bit of construction on that block of Wright Street, but don’t let that deter you. There’s plenty of metered parking on Healey for you to make a quick trip. As I mentioned before, there are a few menus floating around the internet as well as different days and times that the restaurant is open and it’s not clear which are accurate. In our current COVID world, this may be the discretion of the owner so I would recommend calling before you go to make sure they’re open. Your best bet to get an accurate menu and prices is to visit — which in my opinion, is very much worth it.
601 S. Wright St
M-F 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.