It is in the nature of humans, particularly Southerners, to make connections. If I'm enamored of your cousin Pat, then surely you're a fine fellow, too. That may, in part, account for the popularity of the Holy Land Market and Deli; owner Walter Ajlouny is the nephew of Sameer and Renee Jubran of Sam's Party Store and Falafel Hut. For many University of Tennessee students in the 1980s, the Falafel Hut defined Middle Eastern food, period. And Walter's establishment, which he owns and runs with his wife, Denise, is decorated with the same familiar prints that once adorned the Falafel Hut's walls. Even so, while the connections to the past may make friends, it's the present food and atmosphere that make repeat customers.
The food here is good, the selections varied, and the atmosphere amicable. And that's true whether you're diving into a plate of hummus or daring a New York-style deli sandwich. Before they landed in Knoxville 17 years ago, Walter and Denise owned a deli in Huntington, Long Island. That experience—along with good family connections and the recipes that come with them—makes the combination of subs and shish kabobs work.
If you talk to any of Holy Land's repeat visitors, they'll speak, almost without fail, of Walter and Denise as good friends, if not family. And it's true that they prefer to call you by name—and invariably do, once they learn it. That's good business, but Walter insists that he and Denise are "family people."
"We don't see people as customers," he says. "We welcome them as family."
That kind of hospitality applies to the quality and nature of the food as well. "We try to be accommodating for everybody," he says. So whether your diet is vegan or gluten-free, you'll find the Holy Land a friendly spot.
The dining area is simple and serviceable and set apart from the deli by a series of columns and half-walls that keep you in the spirit of the marketplace. The food menu is a mix of solid Middle Eastern and good deli fare. You can't go wrong with the daily specials, which include any number of great things from curried goat to mansef, a big and utterly commendable platter of lamb shank in yogurt with pine nuts and rice that's the national dish of Jordan. And if you knew the Falafel Hut, you may recognize the spinach pie; it's Aunt Renee's recipe, which you'll probably love whether you knew her or not.
Hummus: Don't yawn—this is for real. Denise makes all sorts of wild varieties of the ubiquitous spread; the deli case usually holds six or seven rotating options, from pumpkin-flavored to habanero-spiked. While they're all good and interesting, the standard fare is pretty exceptional. It's a bright and lively version that stands out against the dull and pasty stuff that's conquered grocery-store deli coolers. It's a little garlicky, but that, combined with a good squirt of lemon, is what makes this a clean and flavorful spread. It's a fine example of how one of life's simple pleasures, when well done, can also become a gastronomic delight.
Reuben: This is enough reason to hug Walter, whether he likes it or not. This thing is huge and messy and amazing. It's a classic combination of grilled marble rye, a fat middle of thinly sliced corned beef, with Swiss cheese, a remarkably mild sauerkraut, and a generous slather of tangy Russian dressing. It is pure indulgence, from the first buttery crunch of the bread to the last salty bite of the corned beef. The slight piquancy of the dressing and kraut perk up and disguise the richness of the sandwich, so it's pretty easy to eat the whole thing.