Middle Eastern on Washtenaw
Haifa Falafel, Palm Palace, Pita Pita
by Bix Engels
Inexpensive restaurants beckon powerfully in hard times. But fast food isn't as cheap as it looks, once you add the ultimate price exacted by sugar, fat, and carbs. Middle Eastern food, with its emphasis on wholesome ingredients like grains, vegetables, and olive oil, can bridge the cost-health divide. It's versatile, too, with abundant meat selections and extensive vegetarian and even vegan options like falafel and mujaddarah.
Recently I headed east on Washtenaw in search of Levantine cuisine and tried three places-one old, one new, and one reinvented.
Open since November in Glencoe Crossing shopping center, Haifa Falafel may be saddled with one of the most challenging locations on Washtenaw: it's too far from the Eastern campus, it's not close enough to U-M, and its facade faces away from the busy street. I feel for all marginal businesses now, but if this one doesn't make it, it won't be because of the food, which is surprisingly good, or the staff, who are friendly, charming, and skilled.
The family-owned shop is the work of Ali Usman, his two brothers, and a cousin. The chalkboard menu is short and smart-just eight sandwiches, four salads, and a half-dozen sides. Usman says that instead of trying to please too many tastes, they are trying to focus on doing a few things well. You order at the counter and eat in a spotless, sunlight-flooded, plainly furnished dining room.
The Usmans are natives of Haifa, Israel, and the name explains what distinguishes their place from its Middle Eastern counterparts. Compared to the familiar dense, hockey-puck-shaped falafel, Haifa-style falafel are lighter, smaller, and rounder-deep-fried golden orbs of ground chickpeas. What sets all of their sandwiches apart are the dozen or so condiments and sauces available to customize them. Options include chopped romaine lettuce, shredded cabbage, pickles, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, and five sauces. There's also a choice of breads-a standard pita split and stuffed, or a flour tortilla. When I asked Usman how the tortilla crept into a
kitchen that was so big on authenticity, he explained they were trying to approximate laffah. According to cookbook writer Paula Wolfert, laffah is difficult to replicate outside the Middle East, since it requires a taboon, a tandoor-like oven. In spirit, if not in name, the Usmans' tortilla does fit into the myriad of Middle Eastern flatbreads-and when I tried a shawarma wrapped in it, the effect was surprisingly good.
Order your falafel sandwich "Haifa-style" and it comes garnished with cabbage, lettuce, garlic sauce, pickles, and spicy, tomato-based Haifa sauce (it's their mother's recipe, and no, they won't share it). The sandwich was tasty, interesting, and had a consistency that evolved-the falafel got a little squishy by mid-¬sandwich, almost like a warm chickpea puree with a bit of crunch to it. On my next visit, I had a messily delicious chicken shawarma with creamy garlic sauce and a tangy pickle on the aforementioned tortilla.
On both my visits, they were offering a $7 "Haifa special" that included a sandwich, drink, and a side dish. Among the sides, the house-made lentil soup is not to be missed. It's like summer in a bowl-a perfectly textured potage of legumes and carrots with a big splash of fresh lemon flavor. Another side, the mujaddarah, is phenomenal. There are as many variations on this dish as there are cooks in the Middle East; here it is a subtly seasoned combination of brown lentils, rice, and cracked wheat served hot, carefully plated with a fried onion garnish.
I can't judge how efficient Haifa Falafel is in dealing with high customer volumes, because when I was there the place was nearly empty. But I can say that the Usman family is putting out light and unusual fare, beyond what you'd expect at a self-serve sandwich shop. When I complimented Usman on this and asked if they'd had formal culinary train-ing, he shrugged and said they'd worked here and there, but really his mother taught him everything. "We learned from the best," he said.
Oh, for the heady days of 2006. That was when La Shish opened at the corner of Carpenter and Washtenaw. It was so jam-packed that on one reviewing visit, I despaired of ever getting a table and ordered takeout instead. After franchise owner Charlie Bazzi split from the now-defunct chain, the restaurant became known as Charlie's, keeping the same food and literally pasting its new logo onto the La Shish menu. Now with new owners, the restaurant reopened in January as Palm Palace (see Marketplace Changes).
Many elements remain the same-the ornate Arabian-nights décor, the generally terrific service (from some of the same servers), the alcohol-free juice bar, and the fabulous little pillows of pita fresh from the open-flame oven. Even the menu is familiar: all three Palm Palace locations (the other two are in suburban Detroit) are served by a central commissary headed by corporate executive chef Jamil Eid, who had a similar role at La Shish.
The restaurant was still somewhat unsteady when we visited in February and March but showed good promise. Among the dishes that survived the transitions are hummus and baba ghanoush. Palm Palace's hummus is good-a creamy, savory swirl providing us yet another reason to eat more of their wonderful fresh bread. The baba ghanoush is even better-rich and textured and dusted with a smoky paprika to further enhance its earthiness. But other standards felt washed out. One-note tabbouleh got stuck on chopped parsley. Stuffed grape leaves were constructed of ground lamb, chopped tomatoes, and rice, all tightly rolled together with what tasted like an interesting dash of cinnamon, but mine tasted as if the rolling had occurred too long in the past. The falafel was tough and dry.
Palm Palace presents a number of possibilities for bargain lunches. My cup of vegetable lamb soup, warming if not distinguished, was buoyed by a basket of that hot bread. I en-joyed their humanely sized shish tawook sandwich-cubes of tender grilled chicken breast with lots of crisp, sharp pickles and garlic sauce rolled in a thin flat bread-until I bit into part of a wooden skewer inadvertently left from the cooking process. The waitress was contrite, and a manager compensated with a couple pieces of baklava. That particular lunch was also marred by a long wait for food.
In the evening we explored more expansive entree possibilities. Chicken and lamb are often offered in the same preparation here-including kabobs, shawarma, and kofta. Based on our side-by-side sampling of both meats on the "chef's sampler plate for two," I'd say go with the chicken-it was generally juicier and more interestingly spiced. If you get the sampler, be sure to ask the waiter to include some of the knockout garlic sauce-and bring along ten friends. The portions, always generous, increase to gargantuan in the dinner combinations. It's sort of embarrassing to have the waiter pull up an extra table because a standard table for two won't hold all your food. It's too much to eat, but then again, much of it is amenable to the leftover state, and it's a good value if you are feeding a family. A chatty manager told me they were getting ready to add Moroccan items, and that the new menu will include "walima feasts"-their take on the famously bounteous traditional Muslim wedding feast. A bigger feast? I'm almost afraid.
Is it possible to fall in love with a salad? If so, hungry hearts might want to head to Pita Pita Mediterranean Grill to try the terrific fattoush shawarma salad.
Sitting there happily scarfing down lunch, I had to wonder: considering that I love Lebanese food, why did it take me five years to discover this place? Maybe it was the name, which says "Greek" to me. Maybe it was the humble exterior of this onetime Dunkin' Donuts. In any case, it was only after stepping inside that I fully appreciated owner Kamel Daifi's transformative touch-the faux stone arches, romantic paintings, and paraphernalia from the old country. It feels sweet, unique, and handmade. Daifi grew up in Lebanon and worked on Beirut's glamorous Hamra Street before heading for North America. The steady presence of Daifi and his wife, Fatima, plus a cadre of affable, down-to-earth servers gives the place a relaxed, family air.
The salad that so felicitously introduced me to Pita Pita was a platter of fresh greens mixed with crisped pita chips, topped with shaved chicken caramelized golden on the rotat-ing shawarma spit, dusted with sumac, and served with a side of garlic sauce. I would fault it only for its midwinter tomatoes, which were blessedly few. Otherwise, it was a boun-tiful and light meal, complemented by a simple house-made dressing of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and herbs.
I came alone on that first trip, but once I saw that they had karnabeet on the menu, I knew I could get my husband to join me the next time. Karnabeet, florets of deep fried cauliflower, is our marker for what we want in a Middle Eastern place-a sign that they are taking it at least one step beyond the hummus and kabob baseline.
As we settled in to order appetizers, I asked if it were possible to get a custom meze sampler rather than one of the preset combinations. The reply was yes, for a price ($14). They built a special selection of karnabeet, sujok, kibbe, and stuffed grape leaves. The karnabeet was just good, not stellar, but the sujok and the kibbe made up for it. The spicy little lamb-beef sujok sausages, flavored with garlic and cayenne, were served in a sort of tomato cream sauce. Pita Pita's outstanding kibbe are cracked-wheat croquettes about the size and shape of a duck egg, stuffed with a mix of ground lamb, onions, and pine nuts. The whole thing is then deep fried, so that it gets a crispy hard shell while the savory cen-ter remains moist. Grape leaves filled with rice and ground lamb were skillfully executed as well. Our entrees included a choice of soup or salad. A bowl of lentil soup was under-seasoned, but had a hearty wholesomeness that reminded me of old-fashioned split-pea soup. The fattoush side salad was fresh and well dressed.
Given the range of appetizers, main courses played second fiddle. On a platter featuring two types of shawarma, the beef was more exotically spiced and juicier than the chicken. My chicken ghallaba was a hearty sauté of peppers, onion, and cubed chicken breast. Pita Pita's starches need work-French fries were pale and nearly flavorless, the rice with vermicelli and the flat bread only marginally better. Each entree was enough for two or three to split. Given the portion sizes, dessert was out of the question, but I took home a couple of pieces of baklava for later, and they were good. Then again, who can argue with flaky pastry, cashews, and pistachios?
Service was fast and personable. All in all, from the humble diner ambiance to the authentic, well priced food, Pita Pita is, even belatedly, a find.
(Glencoe Crossing) 677-4410
Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sandwiches $3.50-$5, salads $3.49-$4.99, soups $2.99, sides $1.99-$2.50, desserts $2.50
X Disability friendly
2370 Carpenter 971-5700
Sun.¬-Thurs. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Appetizers $6.49-$10.99, soups and salads $2.99-$9.48, sandwiches $3.99-$4.49, entrees $13.99-$19.99, children's menu $6.99, desserts $3.99
X Disability friendly
Pita Pita Mediterranean Grill
Daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (till midnight in the summer).
Appetizers $3.50-$8.95, soups and salads $2.50-$8.50, sandwiches $2.95-$4.95, entrees $8.50-$14.95, children's menu $4.95, lunch specials $6.50-$7.50, desserts $1-$2.95
X Disability friendly
[Originally published in April, 2009.]