Yeah, I know, I know, I need to get my priorities straight. I should be worried about whether we're going to invade Iraq, whether the Israelis and Palestinians can ever achieve an honorable and lasting peace, stressed out because Al Qaeda cells continue to metastasize.
Instead, my Middle Eastern angst is focussed on Aladdin, a Lebanese restaurant that opened in my neighborhood a few months ago. I really like the place and want it to succeed.
Why the concern? Well, for one thing, Aladdin is easy to bypass. It's the second-to-last business on the obscure easternmost flank of the Prince and Campbell Safeway supermarket complex, a location not likely to attract a lot of walk-in or drive-by traffic. And it doesn't have a very prominent sign. I'm all for tasteful--or nonexistent--signage on scenic roadways, but why a strip mall should practice selective subtlety is beyond me.
More to the point, the jury is still out on Aladdin's food. The first couple of times I visited, two friends and I were blown away by everything we ordered. But three other friends who went, based on my rave reviews, came away underwhelmed. I've convinced this trio of skeptics, Dan, JoAn and Bernadette, to return with me, hoping to change their minds.
No problem getting a consensus that Aladdin's setting is appealing. Although, after a decade in Tucson, I've finally learned not to judge a restaurant by its location, I'm still pleasantly surprised whenever a place manages to transcend its blah surroundings--in this case, a pair of plain, low-ceiling rooms in the aforementioned strip mall. A few deft, mostly inexpensive touches--colorful glass bead room dividers, faux grapevines, assorted urns, hookahs, camels and travel posters of Lebanon--give Aladdin an exotic look, while real table linens, nice glassware and carved-back wooden chairs keep the decor from descending into kitsch.
And there are no quibbles about the free nibbles that turn up quickly at the table. We all dive into the assortment of kalamata olives, crisp carrot strips and pickled turnips--a lot tastier than they sound, trust me--while we peruse the menu. And when glasses of water arrive, we agree that putting mint leaves and lime wedges in them is a nice touch.
The decision to share a bottle of wine proves more problematic, but not because of any group dissent. Aladdin hasn't had its liquor license for very long, and the limited selection of bottles, plus the limited English skills of our server (one of the owners), cause confusion. But when what are, apparently, the restaurant's only two bottles of white wine--a $13 French chablis and something Lebanese for $39--are brought to the table, the choice is unanimous. And the chablis, we concur afterwards, is very nice.
The appetizers don't cause much conflict either: Falafel ($5.25), deep-fried chick pea balls served with salad; sambousek ($4.25), spiced meat pies; spinach pies ($4.25); and kibbe naye ($6.95), the Lebanese version of steak tartare; and lots of fresh warm pita bread. Everyone relishes the falafel, as good as any I've tasted in Egypt or at the Israeli falafel stands I frequented while growing up in Brooklyn: spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, firm but not too hard. We're all equally pleased with the moist, flavorful sambousek. Dan and JoAn pass on the kibbe naye, which is understandable. Our menu carries the requisite warning against consuming uncooked food, and our server gives us that gentle "are-you-sure-you-really-want-this" questioning you often get in ethnic restaurants when you order something outsiders are likely to find weird--and send back. But Bernadette and I like to live dangerously, at least culinarily speaking, and we both find the raw beef and cracked bulghar wheat combo interesting, though it'll probably never become a diet staple for either of us.
The table's only disagreement concerns the spinach pies: Dan and Bernadette think they're dry, while JoAn and I, who like them, argue that what the others term dryness is the result of the thickness of the pastry crust, more like that used in a calzone or pizza pocket than the phyllo used for Greek spinach pies.
The main courses are more controversial. I order hummus with meat ($9.95), Bernadette chooses the lamb shank ($11.95), JoAn, chicken shawarma ($9.95), and Dan, lamb chops ($17.95). My dish--tender, marinated chunks of beef on a mound of super creamy hummus, with fried pine nuts adding texture and sweetness--is as delicious this time as it was the first time I ordered it. JoAn is also happy with her spit-roasted pieces of chicken and accompanying moist rice and garlicky yoghurt sauce. But Dan thinks his lamb chops are just OK, and Bernadette finds her lamb shank much too stewlike, the fall-off-the-bone tenderness that ideally characterizes this dish gone overboard. I can't really argue with their takes on these entrees, although I like the lamb chops well enough. Still, it's unanimous that the better picks are JoAn's and my dishes.
But here's where our group's key philosophical differences emerge. Dan, disappointed in his entree, is disappointed in Aladdin. He thinks a restaurant ought to excel at preparing every single item on its menu. I contend there are better choices to make in a Middle Eastern restaurant than unadorned--and, in the case of Dan's lamb chops, comparatively pricey--hunks of meat, and that restaurants, especially inexpensive ethnic ones, are only required to be consistently good at their specialties, i.e., dishes you can't easily find in other places. And Aladdin meets that criterion for me, in spades.
Alas, Dan and I will never convince each other of the essential correctness of our respective viewpoints. It's just this sort of standoff--plus lots of testosterone and weaponry--that's at the heart of all those Middle East conflicts. But, hey, this is another desert, and here I'm the one who gets to have the last word. So... go out and support your--OK, my--neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant. I think it's excellent. And I need more time to worry about world events.