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One Tale From a Thousand and One Falafel Tales

9 Oct

“I was going to pick a Bolivian place,” Eugene said, “but I thought you guys didn’t want me to.”

We had been to Latin restaurants the past three outings,  so when Eugene mentioned the unnamed Bolivian place as a potential destination, we gently suggested another cuisine. Eugene took our suggestion to heart and came up with an alternate pick.

“Why, out of the thousands of falafel joints in this town, did you decide on Amir’s?” I asked wondering about the logic of Eugene’s choice of Amir’s where, on this night, just four of us were assembled. I should have known, however, that logic never factors into Eugene’s decisions. This is a man, a native of the New York suburb of White Plains, who always goes out of his way to root against all New York teams; a man who claims allegiance to other teams, most from Boston, but really gets his sports’ jollies more from a New York team’s defeat than one of his own teams’ victory.

That there were only four of us at Amir’s was probably a good thing. The small, eat in/take out place would have been a challenge for our usual brawny six. And it was probably better that Zio spend his wedding anniversary with The Colonel rather than dining on something he could get at a street cart closer to his love nest in Astoria. The question was, would what he could get at the street cart in Astoria, or at any of the other countless falafel places in the city compare to Amir’s?

Amir’s falafel

After our brief outing; ordering from the typically middle eastern falafel menu; falafel, hummus, babaganoush, along with what now are called “proteins” on many menus meaning meats; shawarma beef, chicken, and kebabs, the verdict, sadly, was yes. Though Amir’s falafels were relatively light, not drenched with oil, slightly sweet, and above average on the unofficial falafel meter, they were no more distinguishable than Mahoud’s, Ahmad’s, or any other above average falafel joint in the city, of which there are hundreds.

There’s protein somewhere in there.

The “protein” that Rick tried, a shawarma beef sandwich in pita, was not worthy of veering from the falafel while the “popeye,” a spinach pie Gerry bravely ordered, had an outer shell that to penetrate required the muscles of the cartoon character of the same name.

The “popeye.”

After our falafel experience, we strolled down Broadway, congested heavily with Columbia students. We again pressed Eugene on his choice. “I don’t know. I pick a neighborhood that I’ve never been to and then I find a place there. What’s the name of this neighborhood anyway?”

“I think it’s Morningside Heights,” Rick offered.

“The Upper West Side,” I said.

“It’s nice here,” Eugene added, successful in veering the conversation  to real estate and away from falafel.

We muttered collectively and though the meal was not as satisfying as we are used too, took solace in knowing that there was Bolivian food sometime in our future.

Amir’s
2911-A Broadway

A Royal Serving of Baba Ghanoush

10 Apr

Queen Sheeba
317 W. 141st Street.

Zio and I were hungry. The next scheduled meeting with our group of gluttons had been postponed, but we couldn’t wait. We needed our food fix now. I suggested Margie’s Red Rose Diner on 144th Street, but when Zio and I arrived the gate was pulled down and there was a handwritten sign on it saying Margie’s would be closed in January, reopening February 28th. The date was March 8th. The gate was still down.

Plan B was a few blocks away, just down the hill from City College. A place I noticed while looking for parking when bringing my son to piano lessons at the Harlem School of the Arts. Queen Sheeba seemed like an odd choice for the neighborhood, but maybe not. It was advertised as Middle Eastern; halal, of course, and the specific country, Yemen.

There was a Hispanic couple at one of the tables in the ornately decorated restaurant along with a few children running around…obviously related to the owners.

Queen Sheeba’s art

The couple was talking loud, commenting favorably on the food and trying to engage the host/waiter/owner and then us into their conversation.

“Are those your grandkids?” the man at the table, gesturing to the children, asked the owner, who’s English was either truly limited or just pretending that it was so he had an out when it came to talking to his clientele.

He nodded that they were.

“How old are you?” the man at the table asked.

“Fifteen,” he replied with practically a straight face; the curve of a mischievous grin barely apparent.

“Okay, you don’t have to tell me. But you look great,” the man said. “Me, I’m 52.”

I took a closer look at him from our table. He didn’t look so great for 52, but I kept my mouth shut.

The female half of the couple saw me peeking. “Try the rice, it’s really good,” she said to Zio and I.

“Yeah, everything is good here,” her companion said in a booming voice so the owner would hear. “The lamb. The chicken. We’re coming back again. Enjoy your meal.” And then the two of them waddled out.

The Queen’s Baba Ghanoush.

Zio and I started with the restaurant’s baba ghanoush, which, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with pimento-stuffed olives, ranked in the upper echelon in the unofficial baba ganoush ratings. The pita bread it came with was warm and was the perfect texture for scooping baba ganoush.

Spaghetti or stewed fish? Both looked delectable to Zio.

Though Zio was tempted by the picture of the spaghetti displayed on the restaurant’s window; spaghetti—Yemeni-style would be adventurous to say the least, he couldn’t get himself to order it. Zio tends to be a wee bit predictable at times and if there is fish on the menu, that’s where he invariably goes. At  Queen Sheeba, he stuck to his pattern and tried the lightly stewed tilapia while I was intrigued by the “Yemen Dish” called Saltah.

A salad came out first. It looked undressed and there was a greenish sauce that came with it. Zio sprinkled it on the salad and so did I. As we took our first bite of the chopped iceberg lettuce, we winced; the sauce was no dressing but a spicy condiment for our meals. Even though it brought tears to our eyes, we were undeterred and ate all of the crispy hot sauce drenched salad.

Next we were brought bowls of muddy brown soup; a beef broth that was rich and thickened somewhat with mashed lentils…I think. I asked our waiter what type of soup it was. The answer was undecipherable. Whatever the soup was called, it was—and I’ll make an exception here and use the word I try to avoid when describing anything I eat—delicious.

Soup with no name.

Our entrees followed; Zio’s fish smothered in a onion, tomato, and pepper sauce accompanied by the highly praised rice.

The satah arrived in a bowl; a comforting stew of vegetables with bits of ground lamb. Though there were a few distinct middle eastern spices in the stew, it reminded me of was a dish my grandmother used to make for me she called “cucuzza longa;” stewed pieces of a long squash that my grandfather grew in his garden, peeled, chopped and served in a tomato-based broth with ground beef. Who knew Yemen had anything in common with Calabria?

Satah: The Yemen dish

Zio was having trouble finishing off his fish, but I made quick work of the satah, catching any remains of the stew with what was left of the pita bread.

The owner/waiter, whose name, we learned was Ali, smiled in pleasure when he saw how well we ate. He brought us Yemen tea, fragrant with cloves as a digestif which I drank along with a fresh, very moist slice of baklava (spelled on Queen Sheeba’s menu as baklawa).

Photos from the friends back home

Since I live in Harlem, though not within walking distance of Queen Sheeba; I asked if they delivered to where I live. I told him my address but he shook his head.  “You don’t?” I asked, disappointed.

Ali went to the counter near the restaurant’s entrance, found a pen and business card and returned to us. He had me write my address and phone number on the card.

“We’ll deliver to you,” he said.

I looked at Zio. “See, you’re special,” he said to me.

“Yeah, how about that,” I said, making sure to slip a take out menu into my coat pocket before we both left.

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