Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Because I'm always trying new places, I sometimes lose track of old favorites. Such is the case with Ali Baba, the small (but well-stocked) halal grocery and restaurant on University. I remembered Ali Baba as being good, solid Middle Eastern food — not the greatest in town, but certainly not the worst, with service that was passable. Going back into the place after a year or so away has made me rethink my position on the place, as their menu has expanded, the cooking has gotten even better, and the service was warm and friendly despite a high volume of foot traffic.
Because it had been so long since my last visit, I went for the Half and Half, a massive plate piled with chicken shawarma, tzatziki-topped beef and lamb gyros, a green salad, and a pile of delightful marinated onions. The shaved beef/lamb mixture was far juicer than I recalled, and the rich, strong taste of the meat was complemented well by the tangy tzatziki. The shawarma was subtly flavored, and I noticed that the Ali Baba crew had skewered a whole orange on top of the rotating chicken, and inspired move that gave every bite a slight citrus sweetness that I found very compelling. Of particular note are both the yogurt that Ali Baba is using, which seemed to my taste to be fresh and homemade, and the pita bread, which is unlike any pita in town. This bread is thin and soft, and while it's a little tougher than other pita I've had, the beauty of this bread is that it wraps around the food almost like a tortilla, holding all those succulent ingredients in without ruining the bread-to-meat ratio.
Ali Baba has all the side dishes you'd expect from a Middle Eastern restaurant: hummus, baba ghanouj, briyani rice — but it's the falafel that should not be missed. While small, these three-for-a-dollar treats are loaded with flavor and fried to golden-brown perfection, which my dining companion referred to as "perfect little flavorful hushpuppies." In addition to the standards, Ali Baba also boasts items like the Liver Kabab that have me dying to go back for more. Portions are massive, and the menu is so friendly to mixing and matching that a hungry person might have trouble deciding how to build the perfect meal. In addition, people wanting to cook at home should feel right at home in the grocery section, where fresh meat, spices, noodles, and different kinds of rice await the curious or professional cook.
Ali Baba isn't exactly a secret in Little Rock, but I tend to forget it sometimes, tucked away across from UALR behind a Subway. I'm always excited to find that a restaurant I haven't visited in some time has not only maintained their quality, but actually gotten better — and Ali Baba has certainly done that.