Enter Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant, named after a Jerusalem mosque, and you will find Palestinian flags and family photos decorating the walls of the snug space. Traditional Arabic music plays in the background. But what will really catch your attention is the aroma emanating from the two shawarmas slowly cooking— one chicken and one lamb. Some of the meat will be used to stuff pitas, while other portions will be heaped onto a hummus platter finished with a hefty garnish of olive oil.
Mahmoud Kasim first came to the United States on June 17, 1998 — a long way from his hometown in the Old City of Jerusalem. As a teen, he worked for an old man named Abu Hani at a small family restaurant in Jerusalem whose culinary influence is behind Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant’s most popular menu items.
“We learn a lot from our elders. They have so much knowledge. He gave me all the ideas [for cooking]. When I left Jerusalem, the same mindset I used at home, I used it here,” Kasim, 36, says. “Still until today, I thank him for all of this.”
With some tough love and a couple of slaps on the back of his head when he accidentally added too much of an ingredient, Kasim learned almost everything he needed to know about replicating the food from his hometown. He knows how many times you must toss the laffa dough for it to be soft to the bite and stretchy, he also learned how much lemon juice hummus needs for it to be the right amount of tangy, the perfect temperature to cook shawarma so that its flavors burst and how much seasoning a falafel ball requires.
Kasim wanted other New Yorkers to know how delicious good and authentic hummus and falafel can be. He wanted to share the flavors the Hani had taught him with others. And most importantly, he wanted to remember the flavors of Jerusalem.
“The difference between [good and bad falafel] is when you season it and mix it, that’s when you do your technique, it’s about how you touch and drizzle the seasonings. When you fry the falafel, sometimes it comes out crumbly and oily. That’s when you’ve done it wrong. It should have good texture and be crunchy,” he says. “There is always better and best, but no one else can make falafel like this.
Motivated to share his food with others, Kasim opened Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant on April 23, 2018. The place carries much more than delicious food. In the way Kasim shaves meat off the rotating shawarmas or drizzles olive oil into hummus, he also honors memories of his teenage years.
Customers come to Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant to get a taste of authentic Palestinian food, but most importantly, to taste Kasim’s specialties — the hummus, falafel and shawarma sandwiches.
Most customers at Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant are locals who come to it for a taste of home.
“I’ve been coming here for a very long time. This place has really good Arabic food, the hummus and falafel are very good. I am from Jordan, and they have the same food as Palestine,” says Hassan Rogaibat, a longtime customer.
Mohammad N. is a customers who has been eating at Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant for years,
“My favorite dish is the chicken shawarma. Everything is equal, you know how sometimes some dishes have too much of this or too much of that. Here [the flavors] are balanced. It tastes good, like you are back home,” he says.
During Ramadan, the restaurant will feature an extensive menu with food from different Muslim countries around the world. Kasim expects a full house during this time and will be adding outdoor seating. He can’t wait to see customers gather during Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast.
“Ramadan is my favorite month of the year and I am planning a lot of surprises. I’m going to cook my food, Palestinian food and also Lebanese, Syrian and some Egyptian,” he says. “[The fast] will be tough the first couple of days for me, but Ramadan is one of those beautiful months that will pass and we will miss it.”
Kasim hopes to see new faces visit during Ramadan and the months after. He invited people to come and try his food because he believes his hummus and falafel are the best. In fact, he believes in his food so much that he’s made a special deal for those who come to try it.
“The only thing I want New Yorkers to know is my food’s taste. I have really, really good taste,” he says. “They should definitely come to try my food. If you come and try my falafel and you don’t like it — you can slam it in my face.”
Visit Al-Aqsa Bakery and Restaurant at 6917 5th Ave. in Brooklyn. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and on Mondays, for a late night snack, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.