By Jonathan Shikes
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Exceptional eateries spring up in the most unlikely places.
Most visitors to Golden stick to the main drag of Washington Street, the Boettcher Mansion and anything within walking distance of the Coors Brewery. But it's time for the town to mark more landmarks in its tourist guide, including the small strip mall that's home to Ali Baba Grill.
This tidy, sparsely decorated spot serves the best Middle Eastern food in the area (and received a Best of Denver 2002 award two weeks ago to note just that). Owner/chef Fayad Aoutabachi was one of the owners of the now-defunct La Zeez (its former home at 2594 South Colorado Boulevard is currently occupied by another Middle Eastern eatery, Aladdin). A native of Syria, he spent a decade working as a chef at a large restaurant in Saudi Arabia, and his winning dishes reflect both his family background and his cooking experiences. Aoutabachi's partner in Ali Baba, Mahmoud Dukmak, worked at La Zeez, as well as several other Middle Eastern eateries along the Front Range; born in Lebanon, he lived for a while in Syria, and it was there that he learned the art of hospitality.
5380 S. Greenwood Plaza Blvd.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Rocky Mountain Barbecue
17301 West Colfax Avenue, #307
Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday
Pulled-pork sandwich: $5.95
Beef brisket (by the pound): $8.99
St. Louis ribs (1/3 rack): $7.50
Baby back ribs (full rack): $19.99
Half chicken: $4.95
Texas sheet cake: $2.50
And Ali Baba is one very hospitable place. When I dropped by one evening to pick up some takeout, Dukmak not only served me fabulous mint tea -- the restaurant keeps a pot brewing at all times -- but also handed me a plate of just-made, sticky-sweet baklava to enjoy while I waited for my order. When I complimented the delicious, made-from-scratch confection, Aoutabachi came flying out of the kitchen. "Would you like some to take home for your family, too, on me?" he asked. Although I declined to take any more dessert, I did take away a very favorable impression of the place.
A subsequent meal at the restaurant only heightened my good opinion; every dish was a wonder. For starters, the baba ghanouj was a sweeter-than-usual take on the eggplant dip, puréed to the consistency of frosting; its caramel-like quality and rounded depth indicated that the eggplant had been flame-charred instead of oven-roasted. And Aoutabachi had used tahini sparingly, which kept the dip from becoming too thick and gummy. His hummus had a texture similar to that of the baba ghanouj and boasted just enough garlic and lemon juice to make it taste like much, much more than bland chickpeas.
This attention to detail was evident in the other appetizers, too. For dolmades, the grape leaves had been stuffed not just with rice, but with bits of ripe tomato whose sweet tang played off the lemon juice and olive oil that had been poured over the leaves. And while the kibbeh was fried -- very few Americans are willing to try the raw version of what is essentially Lebanon's national dish -- it was still noteworthy. The ground sirloin had been wrapped around a filling of seasoned bulghur wheat and pine nuts, then shaped like an egg (three mini-loaves came to an order) and fried in olive oil until the outside turned into a shell that held in the moist, steamy meat.
Salads are a good test of the quality of Middle Eastern eateries, and Ali Baba passed with flying colors -- specifically, the fresh, vibrant colors of tabbouleh. This was another dish made with bulghur (wheat kernels that have been steamed, well dried until crackly, and crushed), even though Ali Baba's menu called it "cracked wheat" (which really refers to whole, unprocessed wheat berries broken into pieces). The bulghur had been soaked until soft and then mixed with fresh parsley and tomatoes, along with onions, lemon juice and just the right amount of olive oil to keep things moist and add a faintly nutty touch.
As good as our starters were, Ali Baba's meats were the real treat. Technically, the chicken shawarma should have been a sandwich; instead, we got big chunks of tender, rotisserie-broiled chicken breasts with charred edges. Slathered with a garlic paste, the bird had a smell and taste that hit right in the pits of our stomachs. A Meat Lovers combo brought more chicken, this time charbroiled in a kabob, as well as an equally tender beef kabob. The third part of the combo was kafta -- sometimes spelled "kofta," it refers to meat or rice, or both, ground and pressed into a dense shape that's boiled in a broth and often cooked over high heat. In this case, the kafta had been shaped long and thin; it contained quality meat, as did the gyros, made from rotisserie-broiled lamb and beef rather than just beef, which many joints use to cut costs. And the shrimp done "scampi" style took the Italian classic to a new level, covering the crustaceans in chopped green onions and bell peppers, then drowning them in garlicky butter and a splash of chile-spiked, coconut-sweetened curry sauce.
All of the entrees came with pitas, steamed rice, a small Greek-style salad of romaine, tomatoes, onions, and a mild vinegar-and-oil dressing, plus a scoop of hummus. Also included was a hefty helping of charm from the two owners, who made a point of visiting every table to offer information and nibbles of unfamiliar dishes.