Had it not been for a tip from a friendly Family Out scout; our foursome might never have gone in the front door of the Ali Baba Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Actually we still haven't - for that's not the way to enter.
From the front this place is prohibitively dreary. Perhaps you're familiar with the Little Tavern hamburger shops where you could "buy 'em by the bag" (even though you were never quite sure what the "'em" was). Well, this is a former one that's turned pale green - but stick with us . . .
The entrance you want is around back, on D Street Se, where you'll find a delightful little alleyway full of redwood picnic tables under bright Martini & Rossi umbrellas of various colors.
This is the "international garden cafe" of the Ali Baba, a fine, inexpensive young Middle Eastern/North African restaurant.
Two things were immediately obvious: 1) The neighbors clearly knew about this spot, for nearly every table was occupied, and 2) it must have good prices, for there were lots of children around.
Right away, a smiling waiter came scooting across the gravel and around the boxed petunias for the laying-on of the menus. For liquid openers, there's an offbeat range of tall drinks, none with alcohol since that license is one of many amenities yet to be added.
Our 10-year-old son tried a banana yoghurt drink at 85 cents, which must be one of those things for which you acquire a taste. I did acquire one taste from him, but found I vastly preferred the fresh lemonade that my 8-year-old daughter and I had ordered for 55 cents.My wife opted for a tall iced tea at 55 cents.
There was a cold soup of the day also involving yoghurt, at 95 cents, but we bypassed that in favor of an order of Hummus at $1.25 - a smooth and tangy chick-pea-garlic-and-sesame-seed dip with plenty of Syrian bread. It easily served two people plus two nibble-tasters.
My wife began with a generous order of egg plant puree, a sort of second cousin to Hummus, at $1.25.
"Ali Baba Salad with Treasured Dressing," ordered by our son for $1.45, was enough to serve all three of the family's salad-eaters with some left over. It had many ingredients, not all of which were identified, since by now it was getting dark and the little candles just allow you to see roughly where the dist is.
Radishes, chick peas, scallions, croutons and tomatoes wree alleged, however, making it a trifle elaborate for a child's taste.
There is another popular salad there: The Tabbooleh Burghol, with a small portion for $1.25 and a large serving, which must be enormous, at $1.95.
The menu advised that all meats at the Ali Baba are treated with a "secret marinade." Like any good secret, it should be shared, for it does great things to the three kinds of "kababs" wer ordered: Two with lamb, one beef and one chicken. Each order, at $2.95, comes with a mountain of rice, pleasantly flavored with tiny bits of tomato, carrots, raisins and an unidentified, lively Mid-Eastern spice.
Other main dishes include these, at $2.45 each: Kifta, a ground beef sirloin; Soda, a lamb liver, and Kalawi, lamb kidneys.
For dessert, there's yet more yoghurt, which comes frozen, plain and small at 70 cents, large at $1.25, and topped with fresh fruit for another 50 cents or with honey and coconut for 20 cents.
The children each chose a small order with a topping fresh strawberries. While my wife and I had coffee, I managed with gratifying stealth to polish off a piece of fine carrot cake, with a loss of only three miniscule tastes to persistent bidders.
From chats with our engaging waiter, we gathered that the Ali Baba, now only a few months old, is the pride of a Syrian adn an Australian - and that crucial things such as a roof for the winter months are on the way. Based on the efforts so far, the place deserves to succeed.
Our bill - and it's cash only here - for this surprise delight was $24.30 plus tip.