There was no Middle Eastern customer base nearby when Islam Bakeer opened his Lebanese carryout in Burke eight years ago. "I wasn't counting on that," he says. Instead, he was banking that American suburbanites already knew enough about Lebanese cuisine to give the place a try.
Bakeer is Jordanian, but becoming a Lebanese food specialist wasn't a stretch. "It's all Middle Eastern," he says. "Each country has its own signature dishes, but we basically share the same cuisine."
And he had gifted teachers. After coming to the United States, he spent 14 years working for the venerable Lebanese Taverna group, which started with one restaurant in Arlington and has grown to a chain of restaurants and cafes. "They were the pioneers," popularizing Lebanese food in the Washington area, he says. In December 2000, he went into business for himself, opening Cedar Cafe in the Rolling Valley Mall.
With the help of his wife, Eman, and sister, Qahrman, he makes prepared food for the deli case and hot food, chiefly sandwiches and kebabs, for the largely carryout clientele. The meat they use is halal, and many of the dishes are vegetarian or vegan. There's a small selection of Middle Eastern grocery items. There's also a handful of small tables for those who want to eat in.
A strong suit is the selection of mezze, here called mazza. The tabbouleh ($6.75 a pound) is just right: tangy, refreshing and impeccably fresh. Stuffed grape leaves (60 cents apiece) taste bright and lemony. Moussaka -- fried eggplant baked with tomatoes, onion and chickpeas -- ($6.49 a pound) is subtly sweet, with undertones of cinnamon. The hummus ($5.99 a pound) is delicious: mild and with a light, smooth texture. Those who like their hummus loaded with garlic or laced with lemon might not go for Bakeer's rendition, but they'd be missing the point. "I add flavors to bring out the taste of the food, not to overpower it," he says. "You have to balance food so you taste all the ingredients."
Besides, there are plenty of chances to take in garlic here, thanks to Bakeer's addictive garlic puree. A fluffy white aioli, it flavors some of the sandwiches and platters and is also sold by the pound in the deli case ($5.99). "A lot of customers love it," he says.
Among main dishes, Bakeer says his chicken shawarma sandwich on pita bread ($5.90) is a big seller. The grilled, marinated meat, still juicy, gets a hit of the garlic puree and a sprinkling of shredded lettuce and tomato. A mixed-grill kebab platter ($12.99) pairs tender, well-seasoned lamb, chicken and kafta (ground beef and lamb) with a so-so salad and good rice, enlivened with toasty pieces of vermicelli.
I'd make the return trip to Burke just for the sujok sandwich ($5.90). Deeply flavorful chunks of spicy-sweet sausage in a rich tomato sauce are sprinkled with pine nuts, topped with lettuce and tomato and wrapped in pita. Again, cinnamon subtly perfumes the whole. It's a winner.
Desserts are made in-house. Two phyllo selections, the walnut baklava ($13.50 a pound) and almond fingers ($12.75 a pound), are good: a little drier than some versions, so you can munch happily without getting sticky fingers.
-- Jane Touzalin (Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008)