***Yesterday’s ode to the King Combo at Mecca Grill brought the below post to mind, originally published on the website of Denver Magazine earlier this year.***

On January 31, the USDA revised its dietary guidelines to recommend that Americans up their intake of produce, whole grains, plant-based proteins, & good fats even more while further reducing their intake of meat & saturated fats. In short, duh, but it served as a reminder to yours truly that I should throw vegetarians a bone (so to speak) more often.

While the new food diagram looks a lot like that of the Western Mediterranean diet as popularized in the 1990s, Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is no less vegetarian-friendly & heart-healthy. So I decided to try the meatless combo platters offered by two of Denver’s most beloved Middle Eastern joints—Jerusalem Restaurant & Ya Hala Grill—side by side to see how they stacked up.


Ya Hala

To start with the items the combos had in common:

Falafel. Jerusalem’s boasted a golden-brown crust as cracklingly thin as the surface of crème brulée—but the interior of these fried, mashed-chickpea croquettes was moist, nutty & smoky with cumin & lots of herbs. Ya Hala’s was too crunchy throughout, on the dry side. Winner: Jerusalem.

Stuffed grape leaves. Expertly rolled, Jerusalem’s were as tight as cigars, packed with aromatic jasmine rice. By contrast, Ya Hala’s rice filling was plain, interesting rather for its texture: almost pudding-like inside remarkably tender, olive oil–slicked grape leaves. Winner: Toss-up. Jerusalem’s are technically correct, but I enjoyed the unusual softness of Ya Hala’s.

Hummus. Compared to Ya Hala’s blandly one-note fluff, Jerusalem’s chickpea purée is textbook—lightly creamy, spiked with lemon juice and tahini in equilibrium. Winner: Jerusalem. (Ya Hala does, however, have a garbanzo-based winner in fatteh.)

Tabbouleh. Proportion was also the key to Jerusalem’s finely chopped, simply dressed parsley-&-bulgur salad with tomatoes & onions, whereas Ya Hala’s was especially lemony. Winner: Another toss-up. Jerusalem’s showed better balance, but Ya Hala’s had more juice, in every sense of the word.

Baba ghanoush. Only after reviewing the menu did I realize that one of the three whitish dips on Ya Hala’s combo was even supposed to be baba ghanoush; none had any eggplant flavor at all. Jerusalem’s was more like it—nice & tangy, with an airy consistency almost like whipped cream. Winner: Definitely Jerusalem.

Ounce for ounce, Jerusalem was coming out way ahead—especially considering that its combo was $4 cheaper than Ya Hala’s ($8.95 versus $12.99), yet offered two falafel & stuffed grape leaves to the latter’s one. But that was only half the battle. In fact, the remaining items on Jerusalem’s platter were less impressive, from the pale, limp french fries to the fattoush, an oily mixture of chopped green pepper, winter tomatoes, onions & herbs that was completely devoid of the key ingredient, toasted pita chips. Ya Hala, meanwhile, offered up starkly pungent garlic dip & soothing cucumber-yogurt sauce in counterbalance; the earthy mixture of lentils & rice known as moujaddara; a well-spiced wedge of spinach-feta pie (though the phyllo was slightly stale); & unfortunately tinny-tasting green beans stewed with tomatoes, as well as a few chunks of decent feta.

Final verdict: Ya Hala’s vegetarian combo was more diverse, but Jerusalem’s was better overall—indicating why the decades-old Denver University hangout is such a mainstay.

Jerusalem Restaurant: 1890 E. Evans Ave.; 303.777.8828; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$12.95.Ya Hala Grill: 2100 S. Colorado Blvd.; 303.758.9376; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$13.99.