A few years ago, Harun and Shiuli Rashid were holding down a semi-fashionable spot in the Traville Village Center in Rockville, serving up dishes that anyone with a passing knowledge of subcontinental cuisine would recognize. In some ways, Aladdin Indian Kitchen was a torturous experience for the Bangladeshi couple, starting with the compromised name of the place.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant sold mostly Indian dishes to a customer base that demanded them. More problematic for a thirsty Rockville crowd, the place served halal meats but offered no alcohol to pair with the proteins. Then there was the matter of comfort: Aladdin Indian Kitchen had such an air of refinement — plush booths, art on the walls, flatware for the table — that Bangladeshi natives didn’t always feel they could follow their custom and eat with their hands.
In 2009, after runs in Atlanta and New York, the Rashids migrated to Rockville and transformed their original Aladdin Sweets and Restaurant concept into something more appropriate to suburban life. Four years later, they uprooted Aladdin Indian Kitchen and replanted it in the rambling Garden City Shopping Center, an Arlington strip center with restaurants and markets that cater to immigrants from Bangladesh, India and other South Asian countries. They were among their own now.
At its new location, Aladdin dropped the Indian reference. It would be just Aladdin. The restaurant’s shorter name reflected its smaller ambitions: The owners have dramatically edited the menu, dropping numerous Indian dishes to focus on native Bangladeshi cooking, including the country’s signature street foods. They also added several beef entrees, dishes that would be almost impossible to squeeze onto an Indian menu without raising eyebrows. What remains the same? Aladdin still doesn’t serve alcohol.
Like much of the street fare in Bangladesh, chat patee relies on potatoes, chickpeas, raw onions and other generally cheap ingredients. The base of chat patee lacks richness, but Aladdin compensates by adding chilies, sliced eggs, tomatoes, tamarind sauce and panch phoron, a colorful, coarsely ground five-spice blend that balances the licorice sweetness of fennel seeds with the nasal-nuking pungency of black mustard seeds. In a sense, chat patee is a deconstructed curry, its radiant flavors combining only after you give the dish a stir, with either fingers or a fork.
Other items on the appetizer menu smack of Bangladesh, too. You might recognize the fuchka (often spelled puchka) as Kolkata-style pani puri, except Aladdin asks diners to stuff their own shells at the table so the fried puffs don’t lose their crispness. It makes for a self-consciously DIY snack (try boring a hole in the shell without shattering it!), hopefully culminating in a single, crackly bite rich with egg and aromatic with Bangladeshi spices. The chicken samosas are perhaps more streamlined and translucent than others you’ve sampled. The triangles are filled with a bracing mixture whose fire and fragrance camp out on your palate long after the samosa is gone. You’ll miss the flavors like a childhood pet once they finally disappear.
The meat dishes lean toward the bone-in, a nod to the Bangladeshi way of dining. “Without the bone, people won’t buy it,” Harun Rashid says matter-of-factly.
First among equals is the karahi chicken, an oily, no-nonsense entree of bone-in bird, onions, fresh tomatoes, coriander, fenugreek, chili peppers and other complementary aromas from the Bangladeshi spice rack. The dish’s heat speaks with the bluntness of a protester; you will pay attention. At first glance, the beef tehari, a biryani-style dish in which semi-moist hunks of meat are submerged in long-grain rice, doesn’t set off fire alarms. The plate looks as innocuous as stir-fried beef and broccoli. But its black-mustard-seed-and-chili-pepper bite is ruthless, even if the pain is softened by a clove sweetness.
This might be a good place to mention that Bangladeshi cuisine, at least in the hands of the Rashid family, favors the aggressive burn of Thai peppers and cayenne powder. Prepare for it (or ask they tone it down). The curries can shimmer with oil — not to the extent of, say, Sichuan food, but more so than the creamy gravies associated with Mughlai cuisine. The fish masala at Aladdin approaches you from both directions: Its heat blindsides you with the stealth of a mugger, its fire muted slightly by the dish’s oil and the full-flavored, skin-on rui fish from Bangladesh.
No matter how long they’ve been away from home, Bangladeshi immigrants pine for the fish pulled from the country’s rivers. Shipped frozen, the river fish available at Aladdin are found mostly on the restaurant’s “secret menu.” To sample that fare, you need to give the owners at least four hours’ notice. For that courtesy, you can dine on such traditional Bangladeshi dishes as pan-fried ilish, a flavorful, oil-rich fish that’s served with crispy onions, Thai chilis and slices of fresh lime. At $12.99 per small ilish steak, the plate is not cheap. More important, though, it provides a deep dive into the flavors of Bangladesh, including the ilish egg sac, a meaty delicacy all its own.
Like the ilish dish, the sliced eggplant on the secret menu is pan-fried in canola, not mustard, oil, perhaps a compromise to non-Bangladeshi diners.
Still, the eggplant doesn’t pussyfoot around with the chili spice, even when the slices are combined by hand with heat-absorbing basmati rice, a staple of the Bangladeshi table.
Such hand-mixing is socially acceptable now at the counter-service Aladdin, a spare, beyond-casual space with little more than functional tables, chairs and a buffet steam table. Diners can happily eat with their hands, clumping rice and curry together without a hint of embarrassment. If you listen closely, you might even hear some diners say “bismillah” over their meals. It’s an Arabic blessing that roughly means “in the name of Allah.”
As I work through the menu, I have my own blessing to offer: Thank God for this new iteration of Aladdin.
5169 Lee Hwy., Arlington, 703-533-0077, www.aladdinsweets.com.
Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Ballston, with a 1.9-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $8 to $15.