Updated 10.12 – Note: Based on my past few experiences, this restaurant has gone downhill. Your experience may vary from this review. If not, please comment!
There have been a few rumors floating around about Aladdin Café lately. I decided to make some return visits and update my review from last winter, and I’m glad I did. Happy to say, things have only changed for the better.There have been a few rumors floating around about Aladdin Café lately. I decided to make some return visits and update my review from last winter, and I’m glad I did. Happy to say, things have only changed for the better.
Aladdin’s Café opened in early December 2006 on the side of the old FoodVilla, just a few blocks north of Kennedy School on NE 33rd. You don’t go to Aladdin’s for ambiance. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; the interior is bright with multi-colored walls and a mix of Middle Eastern and Egyptian artwork decorating the space. However, it is mostly utilitarian, it’s purpose being to serve food, and they do it very well. A notable addition since they opened is the small patio area out front, with about six tables. They’ve done a very nice job with limited dollars, and it’s a nice place to hang out on a warm evening. Another plus, Aladdin’s now has beer and wine; a great compliment to the food.
If Karam is the gourmet end of Portland’s Lebanese (Syrian) food, Aladdin’s is the street food. They make unique dishes, and serve them at prices so reasonable, it’s easy to get carried away and order more than you can eat just to try all the interesting things. Take, for example, the falafel. Morsels of ground chick peas, fava beans, garlic, and spices are quickly fried in very hot oil. The result is a very crisp falafel ball with a molten interior that snaps as you bite into it. You can get a large bowl for $4.25. Sometimes the simplest dishes tell the most about a restaurant. The baba ghanouj is loaded with good eggplant flavor, balanced with the tahini and lemon. It comes drizzled with olive oil ($4.25). I’ve seen “hummus” spelled many ways, hummous, hommus, but never the way they have it as homous. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Their version is very smooth and balanced, a bit more processed than most, but excellent, nicely balanced flavors, the lemon giving it a bright fresh flavor ($3.95). To taste a range of appetizers, try the mazza combination, a platter with tabouli, homous, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves, and falafel ($8.50). It’s a nice plus that the tahini, used in most of their dishes is bright and tangy. Most items have just the right amount, and aren’t drenched in it to meet American tastes.
Aladdin’s pita bread stands out from the rest of the Lebanese restaurants in town. It is baked fresh with every order, turning from round little balls of dough to wonderfully hot and delicately crunchy brown discs that are rushed to your table right out of the oven. I think this is the best version in Portland; not too thick, with some nice browning – don’t miss it. The same bread is used for all their sandwiches, and they don’t disappoint. I love both the falafel with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and piquant tahini sauce ($4.50), and the lamb shawarma – thin little slices of lamb with tomatoes, pickles and tahini ($4.95). The Kafta (or kofta) sandwich is another favorite. Kofta is a “meatball’ of curried minced meat. Here they are redolent of cumin; mixed with all the other ingredients like pickles, parsley, and tahini, all the textures work together to make it a terrific introduction to Lebanese food ($4.95)
A selection of traditional salads are available. One of my benchmarks is the fatoush salad – lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, green peppers, and onions. It comes with little ‘chips’ of toasted pita bread which give it a nice crunchy texture, and is finished with sumac, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. This will really be a good salad during tomato season, but with all the good spices, it is still worth getting now. You get a portion big enough for two ($4.95). The same thing can be said for the tabouli salad. The parsley is very finely chopped, with tomatoes, onions, and bulgar wheat. It all comes together with a mix of lemon and olive oil, before being mixed with their “special spices”, the bulgur giving it a nice chewy texture.
Safeeha is like a Lebanese version of pizza. The dough is rolled out thin and covered with a mixture of ground beef, tomatoes, parsley, chopped onions and lots of spices. This is scattered sparingly over the top, and the whole thing is baked crispy. You get a combination of perfect texture and balance between bites. The result is an explosion of different flavors in every bite. This isn’t a dish normally found around Portland, and it’s too bad. I could eat it on a regular basis, and it is a deal at $3.95!
Finally, I’ve tried both the chicken and lamb shawarma plates ($8.50). They start with a large mound of basmati rice and pile on the shawarma, thin bits of lamb or chicken off the grill, mixed with a garlic, tahini dressing. These are not the best versions I’ve ever had, but are certainly serviceable, and for the price, you can’t beat them.
Not that you are going to need it, but traditional desserts are available. There is, of course, baklava, but the one that gets me every time is like a flat mound of shredded phyllo, built around a thin layer of cheese, dribbled with honey, and then baked. It’s really good, and with a cup of Turkish coffee, makes a fine end to a meal that is easily worth the price.
This is not a destination restaurant, but it can be quite good. If you are anywhere near the neighborhood or are into Lebanese food, you need to put it on your list.
- Address: 6310 NE 33rd Ave, Portland. Or. 97211 Google Map
- Phone 503-546-7686
- Hours: Monday to Friday 11:00am – 8:00pm, Saturday 12:00pm – 8:00pm, Sunday 12pm – 8pm.
- Website: AladdinsCafe.com
I’m glad you challenged those reports because I’d been getting the same sort of emails and postings on PortlandFood.org and returned several times to discover that it’s just as good as ever. They had just finished the patio last time I was there and I suspect it will help them a lot, if for no other reason than people driving by will notice the place more.
I don’t know if Karam is really gourmet or Aladdin is really unique, but I agree they’re both the best in town.
Food Dude says
Thanks MSG. I was relieved myself. As a matter of fact, I ate there this week and had no complaints at all.
BTW, I don’t have you set on moderate or anything, but your comment was picked out of all the others as spam. I don’t know whyk, but it was not intentional. Without the math plugin, I’m averaging 4 comments spams a minute. I have to figure out a solution.
I didn’t notice. I was out searching all over town for seltzer for egg creams tomorrow. (Wild Oats was the only place I could find it — luckily on sale.) I’d suggest a Slashfood type solution where people have to activate their comment by responding to an email. Then do what I’ve done over on PortlandFood.org and block traffic from Russia (or most anywhere outside North America).
I tried Aladdin’s last night after reading this review, and I have nothing intelligent to say about it other than: oh my god so good!
Thanks for the review!
I’ve been to Aladdin’s twice now and tried the majority of the menu and can honestly say I’ve never had better Lebanese food. Service is good and a tremendous value. I just hope business picks up for them since it’s in such a crummy locaton.
Pork Cop says
What do egg creams go with?….Subtle plugs?……..
They might be plugs… or they might be crappy writers like me. I ate there last night as well. We’ve been making weekly trips for several months, and haven’t noticed any changes other than the ability to get a beer with our mezze. We’re kind of amused by the behind-the-scenes family carping that sometimes goes on at Aladdin, but that’s just our perverse sense of humor I suppose.
I believe they are Jordanian folks, so would you still call that Lebanese food? It’s damned good, whatever the proper title.
Forget all the other Middle Eastern joints in town: Aladdin’s Baba Ghanouj alone should make this restaurant a Portland dining destination. It’s certainly seems worth driving across town for*
Woe is me, how I’ve had many a bad and pathetic Baba Ghanouj in Portland. Most restaurants here treat Baba like the bastard sibling of hummus. Few seem treat Baba with the care it deserves and needs and end up destroying the eggplant texture and taste by high speed blending the crap out of it with globs of tahini so that the whole dish pretty much ends up like some pasty hippie potluck misfortune. Another complaint is that many places add too much lemon juice and somehow magically manage to either eliminate the smokiness all together or they over do it. My taste buds suspect, and sadly so, that some even add the dreadfully fake and chemical tasting bottled “liquid smoke” flavoring, or they substitute vinegar for the lemon in order to cut costs and give it a longer shelf life. This is a shame.
Because a good Baba Ghanouj is both a delicate and complex creation. It should be smooth but still keep some of the vegetable texture, and there should be a bare minimum amount of tahini to merely bind the ingredients and add a sesame taste without overpowering the eggplant. Good Baba should be slightly smokey to give it some depth, and hit the right balance of lemon and salt to soften the slap of garlic you should undoubtedly be hit with after a few seconds of tasting. Real Baba doesn’t keep long, and after a couple of days in the fridge it starts to take on a slightly bubbly fermented garlic taste that is nothing but nasty. Freshness is key.
Aladdin’s highlights how incredible Baba Ghanouj can be when done right. You bet I’m recommending it. Highly.
My only worry about Aladdin’s is the Baba Ghanouj/bread ratio they give on to-go orders. Halfway through my first baba-fest, I looked at my plate in dismay to realize I only had a scrap of bread left, but still had a whole lot of eggplant (and I was taking deep and generous scoops of the stuff). I usually end up eating about ¼ of the remaining baba with a spoon, which is fine by me, but others might want to order an extra piece of bread on the side.
*Caveat: I live within an easy evening stroll of Aladdin’s so I have not had to drive far to get my fix. However, knowing that they make an excellent version of one of the foods I love the most, I would probably even walk across town to get it.
P.S. Did we all eat there last night? Hilarious. Maybe we should start wearing PF&D rings or pins like the Masons (or, er,the Mansons).
Anyhow, the place was sure hopping last night. Lots of to-go orders, families with kids, couples on dates, a few Middle Eastern guys, saw a couple of my neighbors, and the Satelitte TV was a blazin’ with the crazy pop sounds and music videos of Syria TV. It was quite the party.
As for Egg Cream? What doesn’t go with a good egg cream?
Food Dude says
My biggest complaint is that they are closed on sunday – for some reason the day of the week I feel most like Lebanese.
High Hopes – Bitterly Dashed
After working up a big appetite doing power yoga this morning, I headed over to Aladdin’s Cafe. I love Lebanese food and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.
I ordered the mazza plate so I could sample as many things as possible…
The ‘homous’ lacked flavor and was served swimming in a bath of flavorless oil. The encroahing tahini was tangy to the point of being bitter.
The baba ghanouj was nicely textured but not much flavor (besides more bitterness) and was also blanketed in oil.
The tabouli didn’t have a trace of bulger wheat. Just lots of bright, bitter greens.
The grape leaves were hard, acidic and super cold. Once they warmed up a bit they weren’t much better.
The tomatoes were like what you’d get at Subway. A tragedy this time of year. Under-ripe and flavorless.
The bread was warm, but it sure wasn’t brown. And it lacked even the faintest trace of salt. Making everything it scooped up taste even more acidic.
On the plus side, the server was friendly and the patio was sunny (although the seats of the metal chairs tip back which felt weird).
I scraped the tahini (which was the most bitter thing of all) off the falafel – which I thought were pretty wonderful in and of itself. But not enough to endure going back.
My mouth (and especially the tip of my tongue) feel like they’ve been forced to suck lemons.
I’ve resorted to eating Alma chocolates to soothe my taste buds.
Gotta say, I’m baffled by the rave reviews. Went last night (a Tuesday) with a friend and had the veggie mezza, plus schwarma sandwiches (one lamb, one chicken). The falafel were, as everybody has commented, really very good – crispy on the outside, almost creamy on the inside, and with garlicky fresh flavor. And the pita is good, too, though I would have liked it browner.
But the rest of the food was passable at best. The hummus was thin to the point of being watery. It also lacked flavor. The baba had good consistency, but none of the smoky, rich flavor that should make it stand out in a mezza plate. Grape leaves were okay. The tabbouli had the least amount of bulgar I’ve ever seen, but the flavors were bright and fresh.
I did not taste the lamb sandwich (that was my dining companion’s choice), but he immediately said the lamb is better at Arabian Breeze – and the quality of the lamb meat there varies wildly from visit to visit, though the seasoning usually is nice. My chicken schwarma in pita tasted like a very ordinary chicken salad sandwich. No spicing, no hints of grilling, just chicken, lettuce, cucumber, grocery-store tomato and a very bland sauce.
Maybe some of the less run-of-the-mill dishes are better, and the falafel is quite good, but I wouldn’t go to Aladdin’s again unless it was within a few blocks of where I live. And it isn’t.
Food Dude says
I was there a few weeks ago and had another great meal. I’m surprised at the comparison to Arabian Breeze – Overall I haven’t been particularly impressed by the food there (though I haven’t been there since my initial review)
Dude, I’m surprised to see you say that your meal at Arabian Breeze was one of the worst you’ve ever had in Portland.
I live very close by, and I’ve never been but was considering it based on your comments about the food (and yes, of course the review does cite lots of problems, too).
But how could “just terrific” sajh, lagbna that “does a nice job”, “irresistible” chicken kebabs and “unique and satisfying” freekah be part of one of the worst meals ever?
I guess I won’t be going there, but I have to say, before reading your comment today, I was tempted by your previous review, especially since it seems from people’s comments that they’ve fixed some of the non-food problems.
Food Dude says
Erin, I suppose I should have re-read my review before I said that ;) Looking now, I guess I didn’t hate Arabian Breeze as much as my memory told me I did. I should have said, there are much better Lebanese/Syrian restaurants in Portland. Thanks for pointing that out. As a matter of fact, I’ll edit that comment.
Like I said, I haven’t been there in quite a while, I suppose I should go back.
Living less than a mile from Arabian Breeze, it’s become one of those “convenient takeout, get the same thing every time” kinds of places for me. The same thing being the camel wings, which are hefty, heavily seasoned, marinated chicken wings served with a heaping pile of toom, and a chicken or lamb shawarma with tahini.
For the garlic lover, toom is highly addictive stuff. :)
I live relatively close to Arabian Breeze, too, and go there occasionally because it’s convenient. I agree that it’s not the best Lebanese food I’ve ever had in Portland, but if you choose the right dishes – like the chicken kebab, freekah or hummus – you’ll get a tasty, highly seasoned, satisfying dinner in a very welcoming environment. I’m quite fond of the atmosphere in the upstairs bar, which I’ll admit may draw me more than the food itself.
Speaking of atmosphere, one detail that contributed to my negative impression of Aladdin’s – perhaps unfairly – is that they kept cleaning tables with Windex. As a result, the restaurant smelled of nothing but cleanser the entire time we were there. Not exactly the aroma to whet your appetite.
Food Dude says
Erika: Ugh. I hate that. It’s one of the reasons I refuse to go to ChaChaCha in the Pearl – it always smells like cleaner. I haven’t seen that at Aladdin, but hopefully they will read your comment and come up with a better way.
I visited Aladdin last Friday (June 1). I was entirely satisfied with my lamb schwarma, great server. My companions were vegetarians so they went for the baba ghanoosh and the falafel sandwiches. Both loved them. I had leftovers of my ful mudamas and it just wasn’t as good as Karem’s but my companions ate it up. So, not sure why people here have had negative experiences. I certainly enjoyed it and the drive across town wasn’t too bad. :) However, I walked by Karem later in the weekend and remembered the touches that make it a bit more “upscale” and just as tasty.
Food Dude says
On my last visit, the food had taken a distinct downhill turn. The pita, always so good in the past was lousy, and separated into layers when you pulled it apart. It wouldn’t hold the hummus. Lamb Schwarma was strange in texture and was poorly spiced. All in all, I wasn’t happy with the meal and would give it a “C”.
Food Dude says
Brittni, the arrows up are based on one visit 3 weeks ago, but it was MUCH better, perhaps as good as it has every been. I’m looking forward to going back and updating my review.
Food Dude – any updates on this place? I see you have recently added two arrows UP which can only mean they have improved things from your review this time last year. Change in ownership/management or just better cooking like it used to be?
This place is such a good value. I love the ful mudamas and the pita is great every time I go. To me, this is comfort food. I think they hire students from Concordia University, so sometimes it’s not so clean or the service is uneven. I appreciate that they keep it real in the neighborhood.
The Mehumara is amazing, described on the menu as such:
A blend of walnuts, toasted bread, garlic, onion, pomegranate, jalapeno and extra virgin olive oil. That and a veggie mezza or a grilled falafel and I am in heaven. My dining companion swears by the lamb shank in tomato sauce. We ask for well done bread since the default version is too soft for our tastes. The Lebanese iced tea is quite good although occasionally it hasn’t been quite chilled enough (which, plus ice = watery)
BUT the service is inconsistent. Although most of the waitstaff are great one young woman in particular consistently forgets basics (water, bread) despite multiple requests, screws up simple orders and makes addition errors (strangely, always in the restaurant’s favor) on the bill. Her attitude is of someone bored while doing work far beneath her and that serving you is about 12th on her immediate priority list.