House of Mandi

Rating: ★★★★★

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21267394_10155692086058011_103221620_oYemen may be the poorest country in the Middle East, but it is blessed with a rich culture, ancient history and some of the region’s best food. House of Mandi, located in the Brockwood section of Arlington, serves up fantastic Yemeni food in a beautiful space with friendly service. I ordered two dishes to share with my Afghan friend, who commented that (despite the distance between Afghanistan and Yemen) the food reminded her of her mother’s 21222811_10155692086048011_2133578360_ocooking. The first dish was (shocker) mandi, which consisted of beautifully tender and flavorful lamb with rice. The second was lamb bormah, a hot pot of slow-cooked lamb served with rice and bread cooked in a tandoor, much like Indian naan. Though House of Mandi is a bit of a trek for those living in DC, it is well worth it and I highly recommend it.

 

House of Mandi is located at 5515 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.

 

The Halal Guys

Rating: ★★★☆☆

18716631_10155366374778011_182567916_nAs you probably already know, the Halal Guys started as a food cart in NYC and has evolved into a growing fast food chain. Halal food, which is meat slaughtered according to Islamic law, has become almost a brand of its own in the US, despite the fact that any kind of cuisine (well, except for anything involving pork) can be made with halal meat. What the Halal Guys have is what they have dubbed “American halal food,” that is, food made with halal meat that is based on NYC food cart food. It is influenced by Middle Eastern food but is about as healthy as American fast food. The Halal Guys now has two locations in DC proper, one near Dupont Circle at 1331 Connecticut Ave NW and another at 814 H Street NE. I tried the H Street location, which despite being new, had a leaky roof in the bathroom. The staff are still getting their acts together organizationally, which is also probably a function of the newness of the place. While they do offer Middle Eastern sides, such as hummus and tabbouleh, this is NOT a place to come for authentic Middle Eastern food. Instead, it’s best appreciated for what it is: greasy and filling drunk food (which is ironic because alcohol is haram, the opposite of halal). I ordered the chicken and gyro platter with their signature white and red sauces. Beware that a little of the red sauce goes a long way spice-wise. The meats were flavorful and well-cooked and the rice, which was kind of like a Persian-style rice, was particularly excellent. The pita, by contrast, was moist and flabby. Thumbs down for that. Ultimately, you’ll get a satisfying, filling meal. But remember that you’re not getting Middle Eastern food; this is its own thing. And nothing super special.

Zeba Bar

Rating: ★★★★☆

18555027_10155345755153011_1898171643_nZeba Bar is not as well-known as some of DC’s other hookah spots, like Soussi, but it is a much more relaxed (and less pretentious) spot as a result. While I’ve sworn off hookah for the time being because it’s so terrible for you, I can vouch that they have a wide selection of flavors and reasonable prices.  As for the food at Zeba, it’s nothing special. I believe the owners are Persian (which makes sense since zeba is the Persian word for beautiful). If so, they have 18578495_10155345755103011_692215404_nmissed an opportunity to include more Persian options on the menu. While they do offer a pretty tasty chicken kabob, it’s more like a salad with four chunks of meat on each corner. Otherwise the options are pretty much your regular bar food. Most importantly, Zeba Bar has been the regular site of my favorite Middle East-themed pop-up bar, The Green Zone, which boasts DC’s best cocktails.

Zeba Bar is located at 3423 14th St NW.

Zayt & Za’atar DC

Rating: ★★★★★

18337478_10155310686103011_388498596_nMiddle Eastern food is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., but while hummus and falafel are now well-known, another Middle Eastern classic, mana’eesh, is less so. Mana’eesh (singular: manousheh- yes, Arabic plurals are very confusing) are pizza-like dough with a variety of toppings, including labneh, za’atar, olive oil, and, in some cases, meat. Zayt & Za’atar (or Z&Z) for short, is a delicious farmer’s market stand at the Foggy Bottom and H Street Northeast farmer’s 18360465_10155310686088011_1462847947_nmarkets that serves authentic, healthy mana’eesh. I went for the “Lebanese Bride,” which is a very traditional manousheh topped with labneh, za’atar, tomatoes, mint and olive oil. It took me back to my time eating mana’eesh in Jordan. The dough is baked fresh and is fluffy and perfect. Friendly staff round out a great experience.

Zayt & Za’atar is open from 3 PM to 7 PM on Wednesdays at the Foggy Bottom Farmer’s Market next to Foggy Bottom Metro Station and from 9 am to 12:30 pm on Saturdays at the H Street Farmer’s Market at 800 13th Street NE.

Little Sesame

Rating: ★★★★★

IMG_9349.JPGIn the US, hummus is often thought of as a mere dip, something to put out at a party in addition to guacamole or salsa. But in the Levant, hummus can truly anchor a meal. Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, Lebanese, etc. will fiercely argue about the best place to grab a meal of hummus. People make pilgrimages to spots like Abu Hassan in Jaffa, Hashem in Amman, Lina in Jerusalem and Hummus Said in Acre, just to eat a meal of hummus. And why not? Hummus is delicious, healthy and filling. IMG_9347

Little Sesame, tucked under the popular DGS Delicatessan, has finally brought this style of eating to DC. This laid-back, friendly spot serves up hummus with inventive toppings and fantastically fluffy pita, without doing anything that would piss off a purist myself. For instance, they don’t mess around with stupid stuff like chocolate dessert hummus. Instead, toppings like za’atar, sumac and chicken shawarma are firmly rooted in the Middle East. Oddly, they don’t have Middle Eastern drink options like mint lemonade or Vimto but ginger beer pairs surprisingly well with hummus. I had the #5: roasted onions, charred ramp vinaigrette, sumac and sorrel, which was absolutely delicious despite the fact that the vinaigrette made the hummus a little thinner than I would’ve liked. Do note that they are only open on weekdays for lunch, but it’s worth a trip even if your office isn’t super close by.

Little Sesame is located at 1306 18th St NW.

Magazan

Rating: ★★★☆☆

16699743_10155026789438011_778806800_nI must admit that I’ve been known to bash Moroccan food a bit. While I’m a big fan of Tunisian food, Moroccan food’s spicier and more seafood-oriented cousin, I tend to lampoon the national dish of Morocco, the tagine. Tagines are an overcooked stew of generally under-seasoned meat and vegetables and as a food, are highly overrated. So at Magazan, I did not order a tagine but instead stuck to two Moroccan foods that I actually like: harira and bastilla. Harira is a lentil soup, which is tough to mess up too badly. Mine was pretty average, though I didn’t find any small pieces of lamb in it, a usual component. I also ordered the chicken bastilla, pastry filled with chicken and dusted with cinnamon and sugar. The sweet/savory combination turns some people off to bastilla, but I really like it. In Morocco, bastilla is just as commonly made with pigeon, and while I was not surprised that pigeon wasn’t an option at Magazan, it would’ve been cool. Nevertheless, Magazin’s bastilla was delicious and beautifully presented.

The major flaw with Magazan, at least in my experience there, was the service. I went in16706928_10155026789418011_2107752228_n the late afternoon when the restaurant was nearly empty and plenty of staff were there. Nonetheless, my server, while pleasant, was relatively inattentive and slow to take my order. They also brought me the wrong menu (a cheaper menu of lunch specials first) before apologizing and bringing me the dinner menu, because the lunch deals ended earlier despite the fact that I was still there at an off-hour and far too early for dinner. This place has the makings of being great; the food is tasty and the decor is sleek, but the service needs an upgrade.

Magazan is located at 2901 Columbia Pike in the Westmont neighborhood of Arlington, VA.

Jenin Pastry

Rating: ★★★★★

13898746_10154419353733011_1348813329_oJenin Pastry is an authentic Palestinian sweets place located at 5820 Seminary Rd in Bailey’s Crossroads, VA. Since I’ve lived in Jordan , where it’s easy to find excellent kunafeh and baklava, I always appreciate finding Arab sweets in the US, but only if they’re done properly. Fortunately, Jenin Pastry delivers. From the delicious, hot kunfeh, to the wide variety of baklava, to on-point Turkish coffee, to the plastic watering can in the bathroom (if you don’t know what that’s for, look it up), this place is the real deal. They also offer boxes and baskets of assorted baklava, which makes a great gift item. While the kunafeh wasn’t quite 13898196_10154419353718011_189949266_oon the level of Habibeh in Amman, which possibly has the best kunafeh in the world, it was good (and that’s hard to find in the US).

Shouk

Rating: ★★★

13524024_10154330447823011_1963905377_o.jpgShouk is an Israeli fast casual restaurant located at 655 K St. NW. The question of what constitutes Israeli food is, like everything to do with Israel/Palestine, a politically charged question. But whatever your politics, Israel is a country that is a mix of Jews who came from places as diverse as North Africa, the Levant, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, India, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, North America, Latin America- you name it, alongside Palestinian Arabs. As such food in Israel represents a melting pot of culinary traditions, where popular foods including Turkish bourekas, Arab falafel and shawerma, Persian kabobs, Tajik plov, North African shakshouka, German schnitzel, Georgian khachapuri, and much more can be found alongside burgers and sushi.


13570275_10154330447843011_1131468679_oShouk
, which is the Hebrew word for an open-air market (just like the closely-related Arabic word, souk), represents a uniquely Israeli, nay, Tel-Avivi style of eating. It represents fresh produce alongside distinctly Levantine specialties like hummus, labneh, tahini, and mujadara. More importantly, it is vegan; veganism has become a very popular (and somewhat aggressive) movement in Tel Aviv, with places like Buddha Burgers serving up vegan takes on fast food and places like Tenat and Nanuchka serving vegan Ethiopian and Georgian food, respectively. When we asked the friendly owner why he chose to open a vegan place he replied (in a characteristically Israeli fashion) “why not?”

13549058_10154330447848011_946928301_oNormally, I’m not a huge fan of Middle Eastern fast casual places where you just throw a bunch of stuff in a bowl and bastardize the region’s cuisines. But Shouk is different. The combinations are pre-set so that the flavors actually work together properly. The each combination can be ordered in a pita or in a bowl over mujadara, a Palestinian dish of rice and lentils. The different options combine Middle Eastern ingredients but are fresh and innovative. Falafel, refreshingly, is absent. I ordered the roasted cauliflower with tomato, scallion, tahini, and jalapeno oil over mujadara. Roasted cauliflower with tahini 13570245_10154330447818011_246556163_ois very popular in Tel Aviv, so I enjoyed this homage to an Israeli favorite. It could have used a bit more spice (it was a little bland) but overall it was quite satisfying. I also ordered sweet potato fries with cashew labneh- labneh is a yogurt-like dish but Shouk makes it with cashews in order to keep it vegan. It was very tasty, but they should provide larger containers of cashew labneh- there just wasn’t enough for dipping. Aside from a couple of small shortcomings, this place is a promising and refreshing change from the Cavas and Rotis of the world.

 

Lebanese Taverna

Rating: ★★★★☆

13383361_10154264557803011_1668764202_oLebanese Taverna is a Lebanese restaurant located at 2641 Connecticut Ave NW, with additional locations outside the District in Maryland and Virginia. My friend and I started with a drink at the bar. The $6 glass of wine was a good happy hour special, but the service was very slow. The bartender forgot about our tab and I had to remind him. Dinner was significantly better. The shawarma sliders were excellent; I was initially worried that they would be on burger buns, but fortunately they were in small pitas, making them much more authentic. The kibbeh was also great, with both a good crust and a tasty filling. 13388946_10154264557658011_2143209091_oThe falafel was less to my taste; I tend to prefer falafel with less parsley inside it (I am very picky about my falafel). We also ordered Arak, which was very well presented and perfectly served the traditional way with water and ice. My Lebanese-American friend hated it, but that’s only because she hates Arak in general (I do not understand that about her). For dessert, we had baklava, which was excellent. The service for our food was very good, though I do wish the place 13334462_10154264557713011_786964121_o (1)had cozier ambiance more like Mama Ayesha’s.

SKWR Kabobline

Rating: ★★★★☆

imageSKWR Kabobline is a fast casual Middle Eastern restaurant located at 1400 K St. NW. At first glance it appears similar to Cava and Rotibut SKWR Kabobline’s center of gravity is farther east, since many of the ingredients have more of a Persian flavor, such as the Salad Olivieh topping and the Lavash Crisp topping. imageWhile I’m generally not a huge fan of places like this that throw a bunch of ingredients into a bowl or onto a plate, the ingredients that they use are fresh, flavorful and delicious. Overall, I like SKWR Kabobline better than its competitors.