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)