By Jessica Halfin
As if Haifa, Israel was not already beautiful enough, it’s currently undergoing a city-funded beautification project to make it an even more desirable destination for tourists. Stacked into the Carmel mountain overlooking the Mediterranean coast, Haifa – Israel’s third largest city – is known for its diverse population and the tolerant way in which people of many religions and ethnicities co-exist in peace. (Its famous, terraced Bahai gardens have been added to the World Heritage List.)
Yet while many flock to the newly buzzing Haifa port, it’s a mistake to overlook the adjoining old downtown area, which is undergoing a revival of its own. Many of Haifa’s great establishments have existed here for over 50 or 60 years; some were even around to see the Ottomans, the British, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Now the line between new and old are being blurred more and more with each passing day. New eateries and hipster-inspired shops are rolling in as the city continues to slowly clean up the area. Get busy for a week or two and you might miss a new café settling in, or a new bench and a fancy bus stop that wasn’t there before – or even a building with an entirely renovated facade.
Here you can find some of the city’s best gems if you are willing to look beyond the flashy newcomers overlooking the water. Not least of the gems are the great examples of varied Israeli cuisine housed in an approximately 1 kilometer area next to the port. You’ll find hand-fashioned pastries, meticulously crafted shawarma and hummus, stunning Arabic sweets, and I’m willing to bet the best falafel you’ve ever encountered in your life.
What’s the secret behind this formerly industrial area? It’s simple: love, hard work, and a commitment to do things as they have always, and should always, be done, without shortcuts. These are family run eateries where you seldom don’t see the owner making the food and working the tables. It wouldn’t be the same eating at the original Borekas Bachar Ha Agala without Avi flashing you a welcoming smile and asking you how you’re doing today. You’ll feel a wave of nostalgia rush over you when you smell the coals burning beneath the original borekas cart from which his father peddled piping hot borekas to hungry workers on their lunch breaks 65 years ago. Come by the shop early enough in the morning and you’ll find Avi out front lighting the coals, preparing for the day ahead.
Stroll down the street and across the road and duck into Maafiat HaBankim — a bakery that doesn’t even need a sign (not that they have one). Your nose will tell you when you’ve arrived. Step inside this unassuming place, peer just past the register into the open back, and watch Hamudi and Mu’awad stretch balls of dough into long, thin, sticks, to be covered in nutty sesame seeds and pushed into a scorching hot oven. They are there from 3 am doing the same routine each day until closing time in the late afternoon. This hard work and dedication ensures that the freshly baked loaves, known simply as kayk, never go cold for the buying customer. And that is not even mentioning their cheese Danishes and rugelach, simply the best of their kind. In these places, there is no need for advertisement or gimmicks.
Still, when has friendly change ever been a bad thing? As long as the area continues to become a more welcoming and beautiful place around these culinary wonders, I only see promise in Haifa’s efforts. Improving the area is helping to bring new faces to the streets of Haifa, in search of unique cultural experiences. Haifa is the gateway to Israel’s North, and if you ask me it’s grossly underrated. Come and see for yourself, and then take a leisurely drive through the Galilee. Spring is the perfect time to see the rolling green pastures and flowering fruit trees, which is a truly magical experience in and of itself.
Tips for exploring Haifa’s downtown street food scene:
Grab your sneakers and set out on foot. Many of Haifa’s best food establishments are small, and found in tiny pathways within the downtown’s winding streets and alleys. Walking is the best way to stumble upon things that you weren’t even aware were there.
Let your senses guide you. Go where the wind takes you. You might not know that a pita factory is just up ahead until the smell of freshly baking bread wafts up your nostrils.
Find pleasure in the seasonality of things. To Israelis, fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables are also street food! You need only to step into a fruits and vegetable store to really appreciate the wonders of the season’s bounty. Have you ever tasted freshly picked za’atar leaves over labane?
Recommended eateries in the Downtown Haifa area:
Borekas Bachar HaAgala-בורקס בכר העגלה 35 Derech Atzmaut
Must eat: Cheese Borekas (Borekas gvina) with roasted egg (beitzah), pickles (chamutzim), and Za’atar spice
Maafiat HaBankim-מאפיית הבנקים 6 HaBankim Street
Must Eat: Sesame bread sticks (kaek); cheese Danish (maafeh gvina); Chocolate Rugelach
Falafel HaWadi Mishel-פלאפל הואדי מישל Derech Yafo 39
Must Eat: Falafel sandwich (falafel ba’pita) with assorted homemade pickles (chamutzim), salad (salatim), and tahini (thina)
Hummus Eliyahu- 2 Shivat Tzion Street
Must Eat: Hummus topped with cooked chick peas (Choo-moos gargirim); fluffy pita, and lemonade (limonada). End your meal with a strong Arabic coffee (kafe shachoor) and cookies on the house.
Libira Brew Pub- -ליבירהHaNamal 26
Must Drink: Beer sampler of Libira’s own craft beers (te’imat bira) and Focaccia bread.
Jessica Halfin is an American immigrant to Israel of 10 years, an Israeli-trained baker and gourmet cook, and self-proclaimed “foodie”. She is the owner of The Jamstress baking workshops, and Haifa Street Food Tours, through which she gives foodie tours to tourists in Haifa City, and hosts baking workshops and foodie experiences for the local population.
For more information on The Jamstress and Haifa Street Food Tours, visit: thejamstress.com; On Trip Advisor: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g293982-d8867740-Reviews-Private_Haifa_Street_Food_Tours-Haifa_Haifa_District.html; or on Facebook, at: https://www.facebook.com/haifastreetfoodtours/?fref=ts ; https://www.facebook.com/thejamstress/
All photos courtesy of Jessica Halfin.