Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It seems like everywhere we look these days, folks are talking about "fusion cuisine." When we first came across Aladdin Kabab, a restaurant that boasts a menu featuring both Persian and Mexican dishes, we feared we'd stumbled onto another attempt at taking two wildly different styles of food and jumbling them up into something that just makes a mess of everything. After dining at the small establishment tucked away in the Ashley Square shopping center, we're pleased to report that Aladdin Kabab isn't some sort of strange fusion restaurant, it's a place where two partners — one from Iran and one from Central America — decided to combine their techniques into a restaurant that boasts classic (but separate) dishes from each tradition. And while it may sound strange to have chips and salsa sharing the table with hummus and pita, we left our meal deciding that as strange as the bedfellows might be, they're doing something right.
We ordered the aforementioned hummus ($5) to start our meal and were pleasantly surprised when a complimentary basket of corn tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa arrived first. The chips were warm and crisp, and the salsa had a fresh tomato and herb flavor and a pleasant heat that crept up on the back of the tongue. When the hummus arrived, we thought at first that we had been given an order of cheese dip because the chickpea puree was smoother than any we've ever been served. Accompanying the hummus was something else that scored points with us — a piece of warm, soft pita bread instead of the hard pita "chips" that so often come with restaurant hummus. The creamy hummus had a just the right amount of lemon tartness balanced by the nutty flavor of tahini. For a simple dish, the flavors in hummus can be difficult to get into balance, and Aladdin's version succeeded admirably.
We also started with the Tabouli Salad ($4.95), and were served a version that's unique to the Little Rock area — a Lebanese-style salad that is far heavier on the fresh parsley than on the bulgur wheat. This was a nice change from many of the grain-heavy salads we're used to, and coupled with the ample amount of diced tomatoes, chopped onions, and a dressing of lemon juice redolent with garlic made for a very refreshing dish. While most restaurants view parsley as something useful only in adding color, this salad used a very fresh and fragrant strain of the herb which provided a good herbal compliment to the wheat and tart tomatoes.
We decided to order our entrees from both sides of the menu, with our Middle Eastern choice being the Gyros ($8.70), a mixture of ground lamb and beef roasted, sliced thin, and served with a choice of rice or fries. The sandwich was a hearty portion of well-seasoned meat, topped with grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, and a sauce that was somewhere between a yogurt-based tzatziki and a vaguely cucumber-flavored sour cream. While we were more than pleased with the meat and vegetables, with the grilled tomatoes being an extra-nice touch, the sauce was a touch too bland and really needed the stronger cucumber flavor we've come to expect from quality tzatziki. It's still one of the best gyros we've had around, thankfully avoiding the dryness from which so many of the shaved meat sandwiches suffer. We picked the Persian rice as a side, and while it wasn't anything amazing, the extra-long grain rice was flavored nicely with saffron and made a light pairing to the heavier sandwich.
From the Mexican side of the menu, we chose the California Burrito ($8.29), and what we got was a massive amount of steak, refried beans, lettuce, and tomato wrapped in a flour tortilla and covered in a thin cheese sauce — and when we say massive, we mean that this thing was the size of a kindergartener's forearm. While the lettuce was simply chopped iceberg and the beans were nothing out of the ordinary, the well-seasoned steak was tender and had a nice flavor from the grill. The quality of the steak used helps separate the burrito from the crowded Mexican dining scene in Little Rock, but we felt that it lacked the flair present in the gyros.
Of course we couldn't leave a place called "Aladdin Kabab" without trying its take on a skewer of charred meat, and we were pleased to see that they offer their kababs as a side dish. We chose the Chicken Kabab ($4), and when the huge plate of marinated grilled chicken arrived we knew we had found the dish that should make Aladdin a must-eat place for anyone in the city. Large, tender pieces of white meat chicken came out sizzling hot from the grill with the edges crisp with a smoky char that had our mouths watering. The chicken itself was juicy and tasted of lemon juice and spices, all melded together by the heat of the grill. Served with fresh onion and a tomato-cucumber salad, this side dish was the only time in the meal where we wished we'd ordered extra, and it will be the full kabab menu we'll turn to on our next visit.
In each of the main dishes we ordered, one theme emerged: the cooks at Aladdin Kabab know how to season and cook meat. The gyros meat was juicy, tender, shaved at just the right thickness and seared perfectly before being served, and the steak in the burrito carried a nice grilled flavor while still being tender. The chicken kabab was seasoned and grilled so well that it's something we'll be craving for days after. The restaurant itself is nothing particularly distinctive, but carnivores in search of well-charred flesh can't do much better than the way they're doing it at Aladdin, and with the quick, friendly service we received on our visit, we can't think of a more pleasant way to do so.