Ali Baba Mediterranean
Deli & Catering
186 Seven Farms Drive. Suite 500
Entrée Prices: Inexpensive ($5-$10)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner (Mon.-Sun.)
Ali Baba Mediterranean Food
920 Houston Northcutt Blvd. #A2
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($9-$14)
Serving: Lunch & Dinner (Mon.-Sun.)
Is Charleston big enough for two Ali Baba Mediterranean restaurants?
The answer, in my mind, is, "yes."
The two restaurants are completely independent and unrelated, and their near-simultaneous arrival on the restaurant scene East of the Cooper has to rank as one of the greatest food industry coincidences of recent times. The similarities extend beyond the name. They both opened within a month (one in January, the other early February), both were founded by families who hail from regions bordering the Jordan River, and both serve a similar offering of Mediterranean specialties. Common to the menus are Levantine standards like hummus, falafel, baba ganoush, and tabouli along with meat dishes like shawarma, kibbe, and kofta.
There are some significant differences between the two, though. The Daniel Island Ali Baba, for instance, spells their sliced, marinated meat "shawerma," while the Mt. Pleasant Ali Baba spells it "sharwirma." And, beyond orthography, the two restaurants definitely take a different approach to their businesses.
Ali Baba Mediterranean Deli on Daniel Island is owned by Samir and Yasmir Elzabidi. Natives of Jordan, the couple has owned the island's Subway franchise for several years. Back in January, they took a decidedly non-franchised route for their second restaurant, opening Ali Baba in the new shopping development one block over on Seven Farms Drive.
Of the two Ali Baba's, the interior at the Daniel Island version is more upscale. It was designed by Dan Sweeney of Stumphouse Architecture + Design, the firm responsible for such notable Charleston restaurants as Oak and Mercato. The dining room has bright orange walls with blue and red accents, set off by big poured concrete archways. The tables are hand-painted, and the walls and floors accented by tile mosaics. But, despite the fancy interior, the restaurant itself is more of a deli operation: you order at a counter, take a number, and have the food brought out to you.
For the typical shawarma, a street-food staple not only in the Middle East but worldwide, marinated meats (lamb, chicken, or beef) are molded around a spit into a giant cone, which is then slow roasted rotisserie-style and shaved off into long strips as it's ordered.
The Daniel Island AB has more of a home-cooked version, with small chunks of either marinated beef or chicken that have been slow simmered with onions and tomatoes and Lebanese spices. It is served on pita bread ($6) along with onions and tahini. On the Shawerma Hummus plate ($8), the meat is served over a platter covered with an inch-deep layer of hummus. In both incarnations, the meat is tender and exceptionally flavorful, rich with the aromatic mintiness of cardamom.
There's something unique about the D.I.A.B.'s hummus. It's very, very smooth, with a good sharp tahini flavor. And, they serve a ton of it on most dishes, so much that no one person could possibly finish it.
The Daniel Island Ali Baba does a brisk takeout business. But this isn't fast food — it can be a good 10 minutes after you order before the food arrives — but it's definitely worth the wait.
Not everything is a winner. The "Lebanese grape leaves" (50 cents each), which are stuffed with rice and spices, are light on filling and heavy with multiple windings of green leaf that just don't come off right. The pistachio baklava ($1.50) is OK, but it can't hold a candle to the version at its rival over in Mt. Pleasant. But, as a whole, the deli brings a very welcome selection of new, unusual flavors to the rather homogenous Daniel Island dining world.
Mt. Pleasant needed a little more variety, too, so enter another Ali Baba. The Mt. Pleasant version is owned by brothers Sam and Abdul Kader, who also do all the cooking. The Kaders are natives of Jerusalem — the East (Palestinian) Side of Jerusalem, as Abdul is quick to point out. Sam has been in the Charleston area for five years, and Abdul recently moved up from Florida to join him. They looked around the area and found there to be a general lack of Mediterranean food in Mt. Pleasant, and the small storefront next to Starbucks — the former home of Alair Bistro — seemed a promising spot.
Though they will do takeout, the Mt. P Ali Baba is much more of a sit-down restaurant. The interior has a fresh coat of paint, and the walls are hung with broad woven tapestries and a couple of big pelts.
Their version of shawarma is more the traditional shaved-meat variety — a blend of beef and lamb in their case. You can get it as a sandwich ($7), where it's wrapped in a pita topped with tahini and Jerusalem salad (a blend of diced cucumber, tomato, onion, and green pepper). There's also a shawarma combination platter ($10) which adds tabouli and hummus with the pita on the side.
Ali Baba's (Mt. P) has a generous selection of vegetarian dishes on the menu (helpfully highlighted by asterisks), ranging from Mojadara (rice, lentils, and spices, $9) to several falafel sandwiches (including the Ali Baba Falafel with fried eggplant, cauliflower, and potato).
The Ali Baba Combination Plate ($14) is a nice way to get a bit of everything. It includes sliced shawarma along with kofta, tabouli, hummus, a grape leaf roll, and the omnipresent Jerusalem salad, plus a pita on the side for wrapping or dipping. The kofta, a highly-spiced patty of ground lamb and beef, is the star of the assortment, with a pleasantly browned exterior and a nice spicy zip to the meat. The falafel is a bit dry and dull, but the stuffed grape leaves are quite nice. They're filled with savory rice and beef, and the leaves make for a taut wrapper with an intriguing smoky flavor to them.
And for dessert, the baklava ($3) is a tasty choice. Its flaky, crisp layers of phyllo dough are filled with pistachios, cinnamon, and a stunningly sweet honey sauce that permeates the entire bottom half of the layered pastry. If pressed, I would have to throw my vote to the Daniel Island Ali Baba as the superior of the two. The food seems just a little brighter and more intriguing, and there are a lot of little extra touches that put things over the top, like the fact that they wrap their pitas in foil, which keeps them warm and soft through the whole meal. On some selections, though, like the stuffed grape leaves and the baklava, the Mt. Pleasant Baba edges out its island rival.
But, it really isn't a competition, is it? The end result is more options and more variety for diners East of the Cooper, and that's all-in-all a very good thing.