Middle Eastern Cuisine

Middle Eastern
$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

Ethnic specialties such as hummus and baba ghanouj are more widely available these days, but really good versions of them are still hard to find. Middle Eastern Cuisine, a casual restaurant in the heart of old town Takoma Park, has the good stuff.

A large, painted desert scene covers one wall of this simple, small dining room, and the seats are usually filled with repeat customers reading their newspapers. Hishmeh family pride -- five family members work there -- has kept the spot a neighborhood favorite since 1975, when it began as a market. Six years ago, the Hishmehs expanded the business to include a 40-seat restaurant and a private party room in the back.

Their hummus is smooth and earthy; the baba ghanouj's eggplant-tahini puree is brightened with lemon and balanced with a true smoky flavor uninterrupted by overly strong spices (both $3.95 for six ounces, with pita). The extensive menu is all available for takeout. We liked the falafel (six for $4.50), a house-made specialty with a crisp exterior and a light, cumin-scented interior. Included with the order is a side salad with creamy tahini dressing that makes this appetizer double as a light meal.

When we asked for main-course recommendations from Sonia Hishmeh, one of the owners, she steered us toward the chicken shawarma, marinated with garlic and sumac and served on a bed of basmati rice and sauteed onions ($7.95). The spinach dinner with lamb kebab ($9.95) has substantial chunks of meat that are slightly crisped on the edges and sprinkled with chopped walnuts; both meat and greens are nicely seasoned. Entrees come with a side salad. Middle Eastern Cuisine's tabbouleh (small $2.95, large $4.75) tastes bright and has plenty of parsley, but it could use more bulgur. There are plenty of other choices for non-meat eaters. The baked and stuffed eggplant ($8.50), served with fried potatoes and cauliflower, is a good example of the many substantial vegetarian offerings.

While your order's being prepared, it's worth checking out the shelves and refrigerated case of market items: You'll find Bulgarian feta ($5.95 a pound) and Armenian string ($9 a pound) cheeses, boxes of Turkish delight ($6.50), pine nuts in clamshell packs ($4.75 for four ounces) and small bottles of rosewater ($4.25). Leave room in your shopping bag for an order of the house-made baklava ($1.25 per piece). It is light, flaky and not overly sweet, with plenty of nutty filling.

-- Leigh Lambert (Dec. 19, 2007)