Jon Rubin, a Jewish restaurateur from Pittsburgh, has a special taste for conflict.
His four-year-old eatery, Conflict Kitchen, has a rotating menu featuring foods from countries currently or previously in conflict with the United States. In the past, he’s featured delicacies from Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. The menu at his food stand these days: Palestinian takeout.
“Pittsburgh’s a small town, and we don’t have much cultural diversity,” said Rubin, who comes from a strongly Jewish background. “We need to represent cultures that are not represented here, on a culinary level and on a political level.”
Months before the recent war in Gaza, Rubin decided to feature a Palestinian menu at his sidewalk cafe. Two weeks before the conflict broke out, Rubin traveled to the West Bank with his head chef to conduct food research and ensure the authenticity of his menu. While there, he was also open about his American Jewish identity.
“People were unbelievably accepting,” he said, recalling how he stayed in people’s homes, eating “lunch with one family and dinner with another.”
“Even when the war in Gaza started to intensify, their attitude towards me didn’t change,” he said. “Palestinian families were incredibly generous, teaching me their century-old family recipes.”
The menu features classic Palestinian fare including Musakhan, toasted flatbread topped with chicken, sumac and pine nuts; Rumaniyya, eggplant, lentil and tart pomegranate stew; and Maftoul, Palestinian couscous with slow-cooked chicken and chickpeas in a fragrant broth. All meat is halal, though not kosher.
Rubin noted that although the dishes are specifically Palestinian, they have broader regional roots. “You’ll see a lot of overlap between Israeli food and Palestinian food,” he said. “It’s the flavor of the region.”
Among Pittsburgh’s Jews, Rubin’s unconventional menu didn’t always go down easy, so to speak. Though much of the community embraced the joint’s new food beat, some Jewish organizations cited the Palestinian focus as “one-sided and anti-Israel,” according to local media reports.
Still, Rubin remained confident in his cuisine selection, which will stay on the menu for several more months.
“It was a bit upsetting to see the response from some of the Jewish community,” he said. “Continuing to perceive the Palestinian people and Palestinian culture as a threat will only fan the flame.”
Though his cafe, which is in the Oakland neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon, is named for conflict, Rubin’s true intention is to create an open forum for conversation. Aside from serving up unique dishes, he uses the restaurant as a space to host cultural and political discussions. A week before launching his Palestinian menu, he hosted an informal round-table discussion, featuring a former IDF solider and a Palestinian medical student originally from the West Bank. Israelis, Palestinians and many others attended.
“People from different backgrounds were exchanging experiences, and listening to each other,” Rubin said. “Yes, there was disagreement. But more importantly, there was exchange. What more could I want?”