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Rodney Parham Road seems a strange place for Layla's Halal, a new Mediterranean restaurant in West Little Rock. Buried in a strip mall by a Starbucks and a garden center, Layla's is easy to pass by; it will benefit from none of the foot traffic that gives many urban ethnic restaurants their business. But whoever discovers it will find gyros and hummus that stack up to any you can find in a larger city.
Layla's is owned by Mahmoud Jlitali, a friendly and excitable host. (Part of the pleasure of a visit is his over-willingness to please.) After 21 years in Little Rock, Jlitali started the restaurant four months ago, having worked for a time at the Mediterranean market on Colonel Glenn Road. At that job, Jlitali bought the meat he sold; for Layla's, he buys his own livestock and oversees its slaughter according to halal, or Islamic dietary law.
The restaurant itself is barebones. The white-walled dining room is almost totally unadorned and the settings are purely functional. The storefront awning advertises that the space is also a grocery, which is tucked away unseen until you retreat to the bathroom. The items are sparse and basic — olives, beans, and cans of Coke jumped out — but there are a few regional specialties on sale.
The real reason to come, though, is the prepared food. About half the menu is taken up with pizza and calzone selections — a strange pairing with the other ethnic dishes.
We skipped the American fare and jumped right to the regional specialties. For starters we tried the lentil soup, which was mildly spicy and plenty thick. We also had the vegetable platter, a huge offering of hummus, baba ghannouj (an eggplant puree) and tabbouleh (a salad with onions, tomato and heavy parsley). It came with a side of warm pita bread. Everything was incredibly fresh — the pita tasted homemade — and there was a brief wait as Jlitali prepared the hummus. We could have sated ourselves with this hummus alone. It was sweet and had a nice lemony taste. The baba ghannouj was tasty and creamy and not very eggplanty, which recommended it to one of our companions.
When we visited there were only two choices of Mediterranean entrees: gyros and kifta kabob, which is essentially a long stick of ground beef. You can order them either as solo sandwiches or with sides. The gyros plate repeats the hummus and the baba ghannouj of the vegetable platter; the kifta kabob came with rice, cooked vegetables and a fairly basic salad. The kabob itself was nothing to write home about, but the gyros were outstanding. The lamb meat was grilled slightly after being cut from the spit, which gave it a nice crispiness. The portions were very large — after polishing off our share of the vegetable platter, a gyros sandwich and a basket of fries, we had no problem going without dinner that evening.
The only complaint we had was that the menu was not a bit larger. We'd come with falafel on the brain. Jlitali promised that he was working on adding it to the lineup. (Just before press time, we called back and learned that he had, in fact, added falafel.) The meal we did eat, though, made us quickly forget other dishes. Based on its gyros and the vegetable platter alone, Layla's places itself among the finest on the city's ethnic dining scene.
9501 N. Rodney Parham Road
The gyros are fantastic — “like what God Himself would serve if you dropped by Heaven for lunch,” says one diner. The vegetable platter is a must — but make sure to bring either a few people to share or a gargantuan appetite. The lentil soup is also solid.
11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
All dishes are under $10. No alcohol. Credit cards accepted. There is a small grocery in back.