Cafe Reviews

Cult Classic

I'm usually good at keeping secrets, but when it comes to a great restaurant find, I just can't keep my mouth shut.

Apologies to my friends who consider Al-Hana Restaurant, at Baiz Market, a treasure that should stay well-hidden. I can't tell you how many people have told me they've never heard of the place — which is amazing, considering how close it is to downtown — but the Middle Eastern eatery definitely has a cult following. One of my friends eats there so frequently that she jokes it's her new office. Nine times out of 10, whoever meets her for lunch at Al-Hana is an awestruck first-timer.

Baiz Market is located in the most unlikely, never-would-come-across-
it-by-accident kind of place. It's tucked away on a residential stretch of 20th Street, between Van Buren and Roosevelt. The sign on the front of the building has seen better days (a few letters are missing, but don't worry, you can't miss it — it's the only business in the vicinity), and there's nothing much to indicate what's inside. Still, the place draws a steady, diverse stream of customers — everybody from young women in headscarves, buying groceries with their kids in tow, to random office workers chowing down on shawarma.

Basically, Al-Hana is a sectioned-off corner of the grocery store, with tables and chairs just beyond the row of checkout counters in front. There's nothing fancy here — you can eat your baba gannouj in full view of cashiers ringing people up. The kitchen is separated by a low wall that's oddly fashioned to look like a wishing well, and right past the counter, you'll often see the cook, dressed in his all-white uniform, pulling a long tray of freshly baked pita out of the oven. There's also a glass display case filled with cheese and meat pies. Pay for your order, grab a seat, and someone will get your attention when the food's ready.

I often end up with way too much to eat here. Maybe it's because I'm indecisive and want everything on the menu, but the price factor is also part of it. With sandwiches that run around three or four bucks apiece, it won't break the bank to add some appetizers or a salad. Over the course of numerous visits, I usually had dining companions to join in the feast, but somehow that made me only go even further overboard. One day, we had to pull up an extra table just to accommodate all the plates.

Fattoush, a chopped salad with romaine lettuce, tomato, and green onion tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, was a summery starter. Pieces of fried pita gave it extra crunch and flavor. Stuffed grape leaves, as well as tabbouleh, a heap of finely chopped parsely, bulgur wheat, onion, and diced tomato, also had a citrusy zing. Sometimes, stuffed grape leaves can taste sour, but the plump versions at Al-Hana were almost sweet, thanks to a moist tomato-and-rice filling.

In comparison to the bright flavors of those appetizers, I wasn't impressed with the somewhat bland kibbeh, fried oblong balls of bulgur wheat with seasoned beef in the middle. The falafel was better — crunchy, hot out of the fryer, and served with pickles and tahini sauce. Meat pies, with ground beef neatly wrapped in a pastry pocket, were fragrant with mild spices (I detected cinnamon), while spinach pies had a tangy filling that complemented the doughy crust.

Al-Hana does a mighty fine job with chicken. My two favorite dishes there were the shawarma chicken and the shish taook. Sliced fresh off the rotisserie and wrapped in a big pita with thick, creamy garlic sauce, onion, and tart pickles, the shawarma made a good sandwich — so good, in fact, that I managed to eat the whole thing. (Al-Hana's sammies were pretty hefty.) The shish taook plate, on the other hand, was as simple as could be, with two skewers of grilled, marinated chicken chunks. There were pickles, tomatoes, hummus, and a cup of garlic sauce on the side — as well as two huge pitas — but honestly, the meat was so tender and perfectly seasoned that it was craveable on its own.

Most of the beef dishes came in a close second, especially the shawarma beef — spiced marinade and smooth tahini sauce were rich enough to stand up to juicy bites of meat. As for the grilled shish kebab plate, it wasn't as stellar as the shish taook, but the portion was generous.

There were just a few dessert options at Al-Hana, and I really had to make room after indulging in too much hummus. Homemade knafeh was one of the more unusual confections I've had in a long time. This big round pastry was hard to miss when I ordered — it was displayed on a warming tray next to the front counter. Sprinkled with crushed pistachios, it had a deep golden crust with the crumbly texture of graham cracker crumbs; on the bottom was a thick, molten layer of cheese. It also came with a small cup of cool, sweet syrup to drizzle on top. After such a healthful meal, I felt guilty eating this buttery, sweet, gooey thing, but the mingling of flavors was delicious.

When I'm done eating at Al-Hana, I like to stroll the aisles of Baiz Market, where the selection of nuts, oils, spices, and specialty ingredients is incredible. It's the kind of place where you can pick up a prayer mat or a shiny new hookah, too. Inevitably, I make my pilgrimage to the dessert mecca at back of the store, where there's shelf after shelf of freshly made Middle Eastern pastries — everything from sticky, honey-drenched baklava, to neat squares of namoura (cake) topped with nuts, to maamoul (filled cookies) dusted in confectioner's sugar.

No wonder Al-Hana's got such a short dessert menu.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig