Middle Eastern delight 

Ali Baba worth seeking out.

click to enlarge GREAT COMBINATION: Chicken, beef and lamb with hummus and cucumber salad, 
all at once image
  • GREAT COMBINATION: Chicken, beef and lamb with hummus and cucumber salad, all at once.

Food lovers craving variety would do well to spend some time in South Little Rock. Soul food, taco trucks, great Chinese and Vietnamese — there's a lot of different, delicious things going on south of 12th Street. One of our favorites is Ali Baba, a little grocery store with a small restaurant tucked in behind Subway right across from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The setup of the shopping center where Ali Baba is located is an odd one, with strip centers coming from seemingly random directions to form a maze of a parking lot. The big chains — Burger King, Little Caesars, the aforementioned Subway — get all the road-facing storefronts, but digging a little deeper has its rewards, in this case fresh gyros, kebabs and other Middle Eastern delights.

For appetizers, we recommend the hummus ($3.99), a tangy chickpea puree served in an artistic swirl on a small plate and topped by really good olive oil and just a touch of spice. For something a little more unique, get an order of halloumi (shown on the menu as "fried cheese," $3.99). This is a wonderful appetizer made from cheese with such a high melting point that it can be seared on the grill. The result is a plate of tangy, salty bites of cheese. It's a shame that each plate only comes with four squares of cheese, because this is a dish we could eat quite a lot of.

Diners on the go will be drawn to the gyro and chicken shawarma sandwiches ($5.99), and while we've always considered Layla's on Rodney Parham our favorite gyro, the edge for chicken shawarma swings decidedly to Ali Baba. Richly seasoned chicken is sliced from the rotating roaster, then given just a touch of sear on the grill, wrapped in pita and topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, and some of the best yogurt sauce we've ever tried. Best of all, the sandwiches are wrapped in foil for easy travel, making it fast food that tastes gourmet.

When we have some time to sit and enjoy a plate of food, though, it's the combination platter ($12.95) we must have. Chicken shawarma, beef shawarma, and lamb kebab are all piled together in a massive mound of protein goodness and served with a fresh, crisp salad of cucumbers and tomatoes and a small portion of hummus. The chicken and beef are fantastic, just as they are in the shawarma sandwich, but it's the lamb kebabs that really make this plate shine. It's truly a feast, and while each of these items can be ordered separately, what better way to hit all the high points of a restaurant's menu than to order them all together?

They do things a little differently at Ali Baba. Sure, you might have to flag down somebody behind the counter to put your order in, and yes, it's confusing at first about where you pay your check (up front where the grocery checkout is). And granted, if you want a drink, you'll have to head back to the back of the store where the coolers are filled with everything from Middle Eastern fruit and coffee drinks to American sodas. Don't let the differences deter you. Head in, go with the flow, and just enjoy one of Little Rock's greatest ethnic dining experiences — in a part of town that is full of them. Just try to control yourself when it comes to that fried cheese .

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