St. Mark's Place might seem an odd location for a kosher Middle Eastern market, what with its sidewalk vendors hawking colorful socks, spiky jewelry and gothic ware. Then again, Holyland Market—with its Hamsa emblem, its oh-so-New-York history, and Haran, its super-friendly, super-knowledgeable Latin-music-playing employee—seems very much at home among its neighbors.
Holyland is a storied place, and not (only) for its religious overtones. It's been at 122 St. Mark's Place for some eight years. Before then, the Boss (an Israeli gentleman, Haran didn't disclose his name), had another store, something called the House of Trance. And before that, well that's where the stories get particularly interesting.
"I don't know if you know, but before that, this place was Café Sin-e, the beginning of Jeff Buckley's career. He used to play right here. It's crazy, actually," Haran paused to catch his breath. "Back in Israel I played in this band, and the guys were huge Jeff Buckley fans. At the bass player's house, in Tel-Aviv, there used to be a poster of Jeff Buckley at Café Sin-E, in black and white, it was very cool. Then I started working here, and some English guy comes in one day and says, Excuse me, did you know this used to be Café Sin-e? I had no idea. I basically had been looking at my future work place for years. This is beyond small world. This is like some wormhole, a loop."
Israelis missing home might find a trip Holyland to be equally wormhole-like. Where the stage once stood there's now a display of menorahs and newspaper cutouts, and the narrow shelving units are stocked with all the Osem and Elite brand products you'd find at a Tel-Aviv corner store. "This is basically a replica of an Israeli grocery store." Haran walked out from behind the counter, gesturing widely. "If you go to the neighborhoods, to small cities, in Israel, this is exactly what it looks like. Except we don't carry produce. You know, because the shelf life of produce is what, two days?"
Like a good corner grocery, sugar and treats are up front. A shelving unit stocked with Bamba, a popular peanut butter-flavored snack, is the first thing to greet you as you walk through the door. The counter's stacked with Pesek Zman candy bars, wafers, and chocolate with popping rocks ("Makes people happy!" laughed Haran). On the far side of the door, in a plastic case, is yet another popular treat: burekas. "Every country has a different name for it, but we call it burekas," Haran explained. They're filo dough, and the fillings are feta cheese, olives, potato, mushroom, something spinach. We get them, and bake them here fresh. It's good, but it's not good for you." He winked.
After sweets, and burekas, the next best thing is the tahini. "This is gold," Haran paused in front of a row of blue containers. "Hands down the best tahini you'll find anywhere. It comes from Nablus/Shchem, a Palestinian city. They're starting with great raw product."
There are pickles ("we do vinegar, too, but brine is the best"), amba, a type of mango chutney ("stinks like an ass, but great on great on shawarma or falafel, gives things a kick"), and, much loved by expats (and, apparently, Russians), dried watermelon seeds. There's Halva, chocolate-hazelnut spread akin to Nutella (which comes in white chocolate as well as milk), and boxes of Turkish delights. Among the spices you'll find sumac, Yemeni hawaij—for both soups and for coffee—the popular za'atar, and hilbeh ("stinks! But so good for you!"). And because it's an Israeli grocery store replica, you'll find as well Israeli cleaning products, movies, and incense as well.
The back corner stocks snacks in bulk: bamba and bissli("another milestone of Israel culinary" joked Haran), as well as baking ingredients, tea and coffee. "One of the pillars of our drinking is Turkish coffee" Haran noted. "Even though sometimes we don't get along with the Turks, we love our Turkish coffee. We have a couple of brands, and the ibrik, there, as well to make it."
The refrigerator is full of dairy—for which the Middle East is rightly famous—including cheese, yogurt, and Milky chocolate pudding. There's hummus and baba ghanoush, too, from Pikante and a lesser known, but according to Haran better, brand, Sonny & Joes. And in the freezer you'll find filo dough for making your own burekas, malawach, a Yemeni pastry ("you bake or fry it, and you cover it with grated tomato and hardboiled eggs, or honey and nuts and it becomes dessert" noted Haran), and another Yemeni pastry, jachnun.
On my way out, Haran gave me a key insider tip: "Come on Friday mornings. Fridays we have fresh challah, and all the burekas, you know, for the weekend. And on Fridays we have the best pita, too. We have fresh pita all week but Fridays we bring the best kind. It's hands down best pita bread in New York City. Ok, I'm not objective, but I will say there are things here I don't think are good, and so I can say this is hand down the best pita bread. The pita is amazing."
On Fridays, Holyland opens at 8 a.m.
122 Saint Marks Place, New York, NY 10009 (map)