Middle East Marathon

Touring Cleveland for the best in Middle East cuisine.

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Be sure to sample fresh-from-the-fryer falafel at Maha's Falafil. - Walter Novak
Be sure to sample fresh-from-the-fryer falafel at Maha's Falafil.
Even 10 years ago, Middle Eastern cuisine was uncharted territory for many Greater Clevelanders. Today? It's as familiar as a midsummer thunderstorm. In fact, our taste for tidbits like hummus (puréed chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, and garlic), baba ghannouj (chargrilled eggplant, puréed with tahini, lemon juice, and spices), and falafel (deep-fried balls or patties of ground chickpeas and fava beans, with pepper, parsley, and garlic) has blossomed so fully, even suburban grocery stores cater to our jones.

In the face of all this bounty, a field trip seemed in order. We set the onboard navigational systems for seven area restaurants and three markets -- some old faithfuls, others relatively new -- specializing in foods of the Middle East. (Details for each joint are on the right.) Our mission? To discover the best hummus, baba, and falafel in town.

Signs of greatness
Our first step was to map out some judging criteria. "Middle Eastern cuisine" covers a lot of territory, after all; it includes the foods of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Israel, and even Turkey. Beyond geographic variations, there is what could be called the "granny factor": Cooks tend to replicate old family recipes, with all their attendant quirks and variations. As a result, the flavor profiles for a single dish can vary wildly between restaurants, yet still be equally "authentic." For our purposes, we decided to stick to basics: If the dish contained a pleasing balance of flavors, an appropriate texture, and, in the case of falafel, was neither greasy, raw, nor overcooked, it passed muster.

The hummus among us
If our recent road trip is any measure, this region is awash in first-rate hummus: Five of nine versions we sampled shared top honors. At Judy's Oasis, the traditional za'atar-topped hummus was dense as real whipped cream, with well-balanced flavors of chickpeas, lemon, and garlic. The dip at Al's Deli was similarly thick and smooth, although slightly less lemony and just a bit more salty. At Sahara, we found a buttery, deftly balanced hummus, dressed in olive oil and cumin. Assad's Bakery's was a little less creamy, but offered an enchanting interplay of tart and nutty notes. And Ali Baba served a rich, well-balanced, and exceptionally fresh-tasting hummus, generously topped with sumac and olive oil.

Among the also-rans, the hummus at Taza was a bit thin -- more like a milkshake than custard -- and the flavors, a blend of raw chickpea and acidity, weren't especially appealing. Falafel Café's was slightly coarse, and while not unpleasant, its sweet-tart flavor seemed more suitable for salad dressing than hummus. No points, either, for Tannour: The coarse texture and slightly bitter aftertaste were turnoffs. In last place, Juji's hummus proved so pasty and dry, it practically stuck to the roofs of our mouths.

The winners: Judy's Oasis, Ali Baba, Al's Deli (three-way tie).

Eggplant ahead
When it came to judging baba, our criteria included a pleasing mouth feel and a hint of smoke. Among the best: the exceptionally smooth, buttery baba at Tannour, with its wholesome hint of "fresh-from-the-grill" smokiness. Also excellent was Sahara's sumac-dusted version -- delicate, comparatively smooth, with an enticing balance of sweetness and smoke.

On the other side of the map, Falafel Café's had an odd frothy texture and an acrid punch, like licking the bottom of an ashtray. Likewise off-kilter, Taza's smooth, silky version was so terrifically tart, it actually made us wince.

At Ali Baba, though, the day's supply of baba was still under construction. Luckily, we discovered a tasty detour in the form of makdoos, a lush, fragrant sauté of eggplant, garlic cloves, nutmeg, and ground walnuts that melted in the mouth like butter. Delish.

The winners: Tannour and Sahara (tie).

Falafel zone
Crisp outside, moist within, golden patties or crunchy orbs of spicy falafel make a great meze as well as the basis for a hearty, meat-free sandwich. We ordered ours "straight," however -- as a tidbit, not in a pita. Our most disappointing discovery? Carryout falafel doesn't reheat worth spit -- certainly not in a microwave, but not even in a dry cast-iron skillet over a gas flame (our secret for restoring snap to leftover pizza's crust). As a result, the otherwise good-tasting patties we snagged for takeout at Maha's Falafil and Assad's Bakery were irreparably limp by the time we got around to sampling them. Reluctantly, we scratched them from the race.

That said, the remaining contenders included Sahara (crisp patties with a moist interior, packing a hint of pepper); Tannour (golden patties with delicate interiors offering a delightful roasted-nut flavor, with a touch of sweetness on the finish); Taza (good crunch outside, very peppery within); Falafel Café (properly crisp, with a pleasing balance of sweet and nutty flavors); and Ali Baba (incredibly delicate interior surrounded by a crisp, frangible shell, with just the right touch of spiciness balanced by fresh, nutlike sweetness).

Bringing up the rear were Al's Café (greasy outside, dry inside) and Juji's (mushy and damp, with a raw, undercooked flavor).

The winners: Ali Baba and Tannour (tie).

Other roadside attractions
While we set out to judge three specific dishes, we didn't ignore other diversions along the way. Here are a few that deserved a side trip:

An essential part of Middle Eastern meals, pita not only adds substance, but serves as an edible utensil for dips and stews. Springy, soft, and endlessly pliable, the freshly baked pita from Assad's Bakery proved first-rate.

Big, sturdy, and laughably inexpensive, the generously stuffed spinach-and-feta pies at Falafel Café are both delicious and a sweet deal. (We're crazy about the café's stewed lentils too, with dal-like notes of curry.)

A different breed from Greek dolmades, the meat-free, Lebanese-style grape leaves (warak dawali) at both Sahara and Ali Baba were almost like candy: meltingly tender, fragrant with sweet spices (allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg), sitting on a bed of sliced potatoes, and slightly sticky from a slow simmer in olive oil and lemon juice. While firmer and far less sweet, we also recommend the ones from Al's Deli: tender, tidy, and filled with a blend of beef, rice, and "secret" spices.

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