Jamal Sheikha, who owns Jerusalem Market alongside his older brother Suleiman, looks like he should be playing the heartthrob in a Middle Eastern soap opera. He’s tall, muscular, and bronze, with eyelashes that seemingly never end and a smile that makes knees buckle.
But Jamal is not just a pretty face; he is a hard worker, a really nice guy, and a great salesman too.
“Hello, my friend,” he greets customers as they walk into Jerusalem Market. “Fresh spinach pie today for you, yes? Want to sample the lentil soup? It’s my mom’s recipe.” And like a good host, he doesn’t wait for a reply: Jamal quickly offers a minuscule cup brimming with a velvety, spicy soup freshened with a squeeze of lemon.
Believe me, you don’t leave Jerusalem Market with a frown. You also don’t leave empty-handed.
Beyond Jamal’s radiant smile and irresistible charm, you will find a well-stocked market beckoning with Middle Eastern specialities.
Start with the colorful display of hookahs and the equally bright selection of tobacco in tropical flavors such as watermelon and mango. For gourmands, there's an entire aisle of spices you already know — cumin, cinnamon, and cloves — and others you may not have heard of, like za’atar, sumac, and baharat. Then there is the usual Middle Eastern fare: cookies, sweets, dried fruits, beans, pickles, frozen foods, and even shampoo.
Head to the back of the store for the refrigerated goodies, including creamy white cheeses, such as labneh, feta, and haloumi. Along the way, you will pass an assortment of olives, turshi (pickled vegetables), and fresh savory pies known as fatayer, fluffy pita-like triangles stuffed with ground meat, spinach, or cheese.
“These [Middle Eastern empanadas] are typical snacks made at home,” Jamal explains, referring to his mother’s birthplace of Silwad, a Palestinian town adjacent to Ramallah. The meat filling is prepared with a popular Arab spice mixture called “seven spices.”
When asked to list the seven spices, his brother, Suleiman, chimes in: “Let’s see: there’s cloves, white pepper, sweet pepper, cumin, cloves, red pepper, paprika, and cumin. This is a base spice commonly used in many Arab dishes.”
Jamal also whips up a fantastic falafel sandwich with a hearty mix of the savory deep-fried chickpea balls, hummus, and salad he makes to-order.
The lunch counter at Jerusalem Market seems like a tiny afterthought. It is set up in the front of the shop, facing the parking lot of the quiet Plantation strip mall in which the shop is housed. The place is so authentic, you’d almost swear you have the view of a bustling souk in Beirut or Cairo instead of the generic row of bland cars and minivans parked neatly out front.
Since opening in 2013, Jerusalem Market has developed a loyal following. “We have customers from all over,” Jamal says. “There is a little bit of every nationality here,” he adds, explaining why the brothers chose to open their market in Plantation.
“We have lots of Israelis that come, especially on Friday and Saturday," says Suleiman. "We have Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, and even people from the Arab peninsula. It’s really amazing. The last ten years there’s been incredible growth of the Middle Eastern community in this area.”
This diverse international clientele has been gained mostly through word of mouth. “People love our olive oil and pita bread. It’s organic — no chemicals,” Suleiman adds, patting the neatly stacked bags of freshly baked pita and lafa (a flatbread also known as Iraqi pita) strategically placed at the entrance of the store.
There are huge glass jugs and cans of olive oil from Lebanon, Turkey, and the West Bank. It is a rich, green color with an incomparable robust and fruity flavor that puts Greek and Italian olive oil to shame. “Once you try this one, you’ll be hooked,” Jamal says, matter-of-factly. “We know someone with land in Ramallah who grows his olives and makes oil. He ships it here and sells it to us.”
Their dedicated work ethic has helped the brothers as well.
“We grew up in Kuwait City and left after the invasion by Sadaam Hussein in 1990," Jamal says.
The oldest of eight boys, the brothers left their parents and siblings behind, seeking a better quality of life. Suleiman first went to Canada, while Jamal headed to South Florida, where they had relatives. He began as a store clerk in a small grocery store.
“My brother climbed the ladder, step by step, to open our own store,” Suleiman explains proudly.
“The baklava is also an item people love,” Jamal interjects in an effort to take the attention off himself.
The brothers are close knit and humble. They are grateful for the opportunities offered to them in the United States and stress the importance of honest, hard work. “Our 18-hour workdays eventually paid off,” Suleiman says.
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Both brothers gush about their own children, Americans in their twenties, all seven studying to become lawyers, doctors, and accountants. “We believe in education,” Jamal says, standing resolutely next to ruby-colored bottles of pomegranate molasses.
Jerusalem Market. 1757 N. University Dr., Plantation; 954-646-6463.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.