Arax Cafe

Ice cream, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Coffeehouse
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Arax Cafe photo
Dayna Smith/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

Arax Cafe may look like just another coffee shop, but closer inspection of the menu -- and the exotic, irresistible goodies on the counter -- reveals more than your usual bagel and muffin offerings. In this tiny Arlington cafe, which has a handful of tables inside and out front, you can find traditional Armenian sandwiches, salads, snacks and pastries deftly prepared by Rose Hovsepian, who opened the place with her husband Hutsch about four years ago.

While most of the dishes can be categorized as "light fare," menu items are inexpensive, making it feasible to sample several. You will find the familiar, such as hummus served with pita ($4.75), which is simultaneously bright and earthy with a perfect balance of seasoning and lemon juice, topped with olive oil and a dusting of sweet red ground pepper and cumin. "Every day I [make it] fresh because we use a lot," Rose Hovsepian says.

There are also more unusual items such as sarma grape leaves (six for $4.75), stuffed with raisin-studded rice and made rich with tomato paste and red pepper paste. The rustic, open-faced Armenian meat pies ($2.50) are sweet and savory, topped with beef, scallions and spices.

A visit here would not be complete without a dip into the dessert counter. There are several incarnations of baklava ($1.49), which Hovsepian insists differ in more than just shape; the standout baklava is cigar-shaped and rolled up with cashews, walnuts and rose-water syrup. Or choose the semolina cake scented with rose water and spiked with almonds ($2.50) and large jam-filled butter cookies dusted with confectioners' sugar ($2.25).

If none of those tickles your fancy, try some of the ice cream made for the Hovsepians by a good friend. Like the cafe's other desserts, the ice cream is uncommonly delicious, offered in flavors that reflect the seasons. "Now that it's warm, we're going to get lots of new fruit flavors -- mango, cherry Bordeaux, blueberry and coconut," says Hovsepian.

-- Rina Rapuano (June, 2006)