A group of friends wanted to get together for dinner, and I had to pick the place. Naturally, there were conditions: It had to have lots of choices for both carnivores and vegetarians. It had to be a nice place to sit and talk. And, oh yeah, it couldn't be Italian, Thai or Vietnamese. "Find us someplace new," they whined, I mean, said.
Sigh. Life can be so hard. But then, amazingly enough, I found the perfect place -- Aladdin's Eatery in Burke (with a branch in Shirlington, too).
Aladdin's is Lebanese. The extensive menu has many vegetarian dishes (plus several vegan ones), as well as many traditional meat dishes. Located in a suburban shopping center, the atmosphere is casual but inviting. What could be better for a bunch of friends who take eating as seriously as socializing?
The five-year-old restaurant, with carryout service, is owned by Liliane and Walid Boustany. It's a favorite of many vegetarians, said Liliane Boustany, "because authentic Lebanese has a lot of vegetarian dishes. Even nonvegetarians love them."
She started naming many of the ones we tried -- loubie bzeit , a wonderful dish of sauted green beans, fresh tomatoes and garlic; mujadara , the restaurant's popular combination of lentils and rice topped with irresistible strands of crisp onions ($7.45); tender falafel patties made in-house daily from fava beans, chickpeas, onions, herbs and fried in peanut oil ($5.45); fatayer, a spinach and feta pie ($7.45); dawali , grape leaves stuffed with chickpeas, feta, rice and tomatoes ($4.85); lentil soup, the restaurant's hearty signature dish made with Swiss chard, potatoes, celery and onions ($2.75); and foole m'damas , a delicious appetizer puree of fava beans, garlic, olive oil and lemon ($4.55). And, of course, the familiar hummus, tabbouleh (cracked wheat salad) and baba ghanouj (roasted eggplant dip) ($4.65 to $4.85).
In addition to the vegetarian specialties, Aladdin's earns carnivore points for its tawook (chicken tenders marinated in wine, vinegar and spices, then charbroiled, $8.95), and (my daughter's favorite) the shish kebab plate (charbroiled marinated beef with rice and vegetables, $8.15).
On these cold winter days, the eight soups offered at Aladdin's are especially welcome. There are also both vegetarian and regular rolled pita sandwiches and nine kinds of "pitzas" -- pita pizzas with inventive toppings such as the Arayiss with hummus, sfiha (seasoned ground lamb), tomatoes and pine nuts ($5.25 to $5.95).
Of all the restaurant's dishes, Boustany admits that the lentil soup is her favorite. Truth be told, she likes it better than her mother's, although she's learned not to mention that little fact.
"Once I brought some of the soup home, and my mother said, 'Oh, you didn't need to do that. I made my lentil soup.' I told her I liked the restaurant's better. She was so upset. I'll never do that again."
-- Candy Sagon (Dec. 2005)