Cafe Society

Aladdin Cafe and Grill

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?"

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan