Baba ghanooj and homemade hummus
Great Middle Eastern food isn’t always easy to find, but it isn’t due to a lack of restaurants offering Middle Eastern or Mediterranean menu choices. Ali Baba, located on South Craig Street, is one of many on the long list of restaurants hoping to make the cut. Ali Baba is open every day for lunch and dinner (leaving a middle-of-the-day period
that’s inconvenient if you’re craving hummus or baba ghanooj).
The first thing to greet you upon entering this small restaurant, besides the checkout counter, is a wall full of awards for best Middle Eastern restaurant in Pittsburgh, given to Ali Baba by various publications. The restaurant is pretty dark inside, and while not very big, Ali Baba is often filled to capacity.
The décor is sparse, but draped fabric and plants hang from the ceiling, giving the restaurant an airy feel. The tables are small, and once the food starts coming, it feels almost as though there isn’t enough room for everything you’ve ordered.
Each meal comes with a plate of rice mixed with pignoli nuts and a small house salad tossed in the only dressing available, made of a mixture of lemon, oil, and herbs. Every table also gets a basket of warm pita bread, which is put to excellent use with Ali Baba’s array of appetizers.
The grape leaves, filled either with rice and lamb or a vegetarian filling consisting mostly of flavored rice, provide a light start to the meal. They come in two sizes, and are moderately priced at around $4 per order. Another appetizer worth trying is the hummus. The balance of seasonings and flavors is just right, and the top of each order is decorated with a puddle of oil filled with spices, making for the best hummus I’ve found yet.
The appetizers at Ali Baba are significantly better than the entrées. The shish tawook (skewered chargrilled chicken) is served off of the skewer and often tastes burnt. A piece of green pepper accompanies it but doesn’t provide any great flavor to the meal. The only part of this dish that stands out from other dry chicken dishes is the optional lemon garlic sauce that tastes suspiciously like the salad dressing.
The couscous dish, served with either a lamb or vegetarian stew, contains interesting flavors, but the couscous is dry and often difficult to eat. Despite having couscous, the dish still comes with the rice, which provides for too many dry side dishes for one entrée.
Meals are reasonably priced, and despite the lack of satisfying entrées, the appetizers alone are worth the visit. Dishes like the Vegetarian Special at dinner and the Healthy Variety at lunch include a small selection of appetizers for a price similar to that of a single appetizer (around $5 to $6).
Make it at home
Don’t care to eat out for your Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cravings? Try making these dishes at home for an alternative to dining out.
1 can chickpeas/garbanzo beans
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped
1 ½ tablespoon tahini
(optional) ½ teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor, blending until smooth. Serve hummus with olive oil on top. Keep up to three days in the refrigerator.
1 box plain couscous
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon salt
Follow instructions on box to make couscous. After it cooks, fluff with a fork. Mix in butter and salt until butter melts. Serve as a side dish or main course. To make this recipe more unique, add your favorite herbs and spices when adding the butter. Can also be served cold as a salad with tomatoes and cucumbers.
Mediterranean Pita Sandwich
1 piece pita
2 tablespoon hummus
1 cooked chicken breast, sliced
6 artichoke heart quarters, chopped
1 roasted red pepper
Spread hummus onto pita. Place red pepper, chicken, and artichoke hearts on top and roll or fold in half. This can be made with homemade or store-bought hummus. Like spicy foods? Try using chili-pepper-flavored hummus instead of plain to get an extra punch of flavor.