If I'd known what I was watching, I might have felt differently. But because I hadn't the foggiest idea what anyone was saying, why things kept exploding every thirty seconds, or what the deal was with the dancing slice of pizza stopping traffic on the beautiful arabesque bridge, I loved it. I kept stopping mid-bite, mid-sentence, to twist around in my seat and stare at the TV just to see what was going to happen next.
"You've got to stop doing that," Laura said. "You're freaking out the waiter."
"Check it out," I replied. "The dancing pizza is back. Why do you think it's wearing a top hat?"
Aladdin Cafe and Grill
2594 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- close Friday-Saturday.
Lamb kabob $14.95
Lamb shank $9.95
Overcome by a sudden yen for shawarma and chickpeas on a drive up Colorado Boulevard, I'd grabbed Laura's arm and yelled for her to turn into the massive University Hills Plaza parking lot, pointing across her and snapping, "Ooh! In there! Quick!" like we were running from the cops and needed a place to dump the car.
A fast two-lane drift and snap turn into the exit lane of the lot's driveway later, we were at the Aladdin Cafe and Grill. I was out of the car before it'd stopped rocking on its springs and had my nose up against the glass, trying to read the menu displayed beside the door, when Laura joined me.
"You've got to stop doing that," she said. "You're going to get us killed."
"Look," I said. "Falafel. What're you going to have?"
We were seated in a booth close to a TV. The waiter brought menus and demitasse cups of Turkish coffee, strong and black and slightly gritty but redolent of cinnamon, and I sipped it as I watched some mystery channel high on the dial that showed nothing but Arabic music videos. I've always liked Middle Eastern pop music. I have no idea why -- something about the strange, off-key strings and throbbing drums, maybe, something about its essential, ululating strangeness. And Arabic music videos are wicked cool; every one of them is a small feature film, with none of this one-man-and-a-piano bullshit that American songwriters try to get away with. These videos have hundred-strong casts, and people are always running around with machine guns while cars career off bridges and explode. They have plot arcs that even someone (like me) who doesn't understand the language can follow: dark-haired fella meets a girl, girl gets stolen away by some Snidely Whiplash-looking motherfucker with bad teeth and a handlebar mustache, then fill with a car chase, a sitar solo and a dance number that puts the Sharks and Jets to shame, and close with the dancing pizza. Brilliant.
We ate arayes (beef and onion and tomato and garlic and garlic and garlic cooked inside pita bread) and good hummus, strong on the garlic and sesame, formed into a chickpea crater on the plate, its well filled with paprika and olive oil. When those were gone, another video came on -- this one even less coherent than the first, but overlaid with a thumping techno beat and featuring a climactic dance-off between the good guys and the bad guys in the middle of a crowded market -- and I wasn't about to leave. So we ate chicken kabobs, rubbed with a complicated, sweet/hot spice paste and served over rice, and a beef shawarma sandwich made with rough-cut marinated slabs of sirloin rather than the stuff cut off the rotating meat stick that stands at center stage in the kitchens of so many Middle Eastern restaurants. It was a good sandwich, but personally, I prefer the meat stick.
"I don't like this at all," Laura said, pulling chunks of chicken off her skewer and depositing them on my plate. "Can we not come back here?"
"Look at that," I said, continuing to eat my way though the delicious chicken and pointing behind me with my fork. "Is that supposed to be François Mitterand?"
"You mean the guy on the commercial for the check-cashing place? No, I don't think so."
I twisted back around and realized that I'd missed the end of the video, so now I'll never know who won the giant dance battle or why a guy who looked suspiciously like the former French president was overseeing the whole thing, cackling deviously. Still, the chicken was worth it.
"Man, I can't wait to come back here," I said.
Aladdin has been open for a few years now, standing on cracked blacktop off to the side of the giant strip mall. The anti-smoking law that took effect last July very nearly cold-cocked owner Ahmad Alkiteb, because hookahs and hookah smokers represented a decent percentage of his business, but he managed to slide through the cigar-bar loophole by proving that they represented enough of his business to get him a pass from the state. There's a table at the front where the hookahs sit when not in service, ranked and empty like tall, deco bud vases, each one labeled with a small piece of tape that tells what flavor tobacco it's used for, and there's a covered, heated patio off to one side of the dining room where the big pipes get smoked. Sometimes they give the place a rich and fruity aroma. The rest of the time it smells like astringent chemical cleaning products and char from the grills.
The dining room is a simple space, light on the decor but not barren, with vinyl-covered booths and framed posters on the walls -- one a photographic compendium of the leafy vegetables of Asia, another showing different kinds of garlic from around the world, shot sensuously, like porno. The counter is crowded, the TVs always loud, the kitchen old and rather rattletrap, with foil wrapped around the nozzles of the Ansel system and the hoods sucking up great gouts of smoke from the grill. Aladdin serves a cut-down menu late on the weekends -- until midnight at least on Fridays, sometimes until 3 a.m. on Saturdays -- and the hookah lounge/patio is often crowded. When required, the middle of the dining room can be cleared to make room for dancing. There are lights and disco lasers hidden up in the ceiling, a portable sound system pushed off into a corner during the day.
Aladdin certainly has its draws. Kicking back, having a nice hookah of strawberry tobacco, some hummus, sipping black, jet-fuel coffee and listening to Arab love songs full of singing sultans and dancing pizzas -- that's a nice way to spend the afternoon. But what's coming out of the kitchen isn't always as smooth.
On the one hand, I could say that everything here is good -- except when it isn't, except when the cooks are careless or clueless. I've had fries that had been cooked in scorched fryer oil that left a sour slick on my tongue that wouldn't go away, falafel burned so badly that it was inedible. One night the chicken on the kabsa was good, cleanly trimmed and roasted just right, but served with curried rice that was terrible, dry and well on its way to stale. The next, the long-grain rice was luscious and soft, studded with carrots, corn kernels and nuts, and the chicken was terrible -- dry at the skin, mushy at the bone and so heavy on the clove that I could've performed an at-home dental extraction after I was done eating and never felt a thing. And I might have needed the dental work, because a bite of the baklava was like being hit in the mouth by a guy packing cinnamon brass knuckles.
On the other hand, I could say that everything here is workmanlike, plain and straightforward Lebanese cuisine except for when it's fantastic. And this would be the more accurate description, because while the burnt falafel was probably a mistake, a bowl of foule done as well as it is at Aladdin can't be anything but deliberate. This foule is made from fava beans, the Lebanese way -- marinated in oil and spices, then cooked until soft in a thickened broth with tomato, garlic, tahini, lemon and a lace of olive oil. Served warm, with pita on the side and a very large spoon, it is comforting and sweet, filling, with enough starch and carbohydrates to keep even a spastic little man like me sedated for hours.
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Aladdin also makes the only kafta I've ever enjoyed. Kafta is the Middle Eastern equivalent of the hamburger: ground beef, cut with onions and parsley and spices, rolled into a cylinder, then skewered and charbroiled. At most Middle Eastern restaurants, the result looks like a turd and is broiled far past well-done, far past the point where there's any moisture left, far past the moment when the last of the beef flavor is mercilessly scorched out of it. It's like a meatloaf overcooked by six hours. But while Aladdin's kafta may still look unfortunate, it tastes wonderful -- tender and delicately spiced, savory and plush with cumin and salt and onion and parsley and a whole palette of spices that, while overused on other dishes on this menu, here serve to enliven an entree that always desperately needs it. The kitchen also puts spices to good use on lamb -- gently grilled and sweetened with bell peppers for kabobs, roasted with fresh vegetables and garlic for the lamb shank entree.
At Aladdin, I've never had a meal when everything was great, but I've always wanted more of something, even when the uneaten food starts to crowd the table and the to-go boxes can't come fast enough. The service is invariably friendly and accommodating. On a good night (or a quiet night), you can walk in and catch the waiter singing along with the TVs, smiling sheepishly when caught.
No matter what, there's always the music. And I know that, soon enough, I'll find myself back at Aladdin, eating the foule and chicken kabobs, smoking a hookah, waiting to see if I'll ever find out who triumphed at Mitterand's dance party.