The prospect of eating at a rare Middle Eastern restaurant in the Alle-Kiski Valley prompted us to bend our rule against chain restaurants and try Aladdin’s Eatery. We were quickly charmed by the comfortable interior, excellent service and fresh ingredients.
The Ohio-based chain has about 30 locations in all, including four others in Western Pennsylvania. The franchise got its start in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood when Fady and Sally Chamoun tired of operating Little Caesar’s pizza shops and opened a Lebanese diner instead.
Don’t come to Aladdin’s expecting to be transported to a movie set with wildly colorful pillows and carpets, magic lamps and turbaned men smoking hookah water pipes.
With its decor of mellow shades of brown, gold and red, polished wood tables, intriguing light fixtures, servers clad in white and bright interior with a wall of windows, Aladdin’s could easily be mistaken for a trendy sandwich shop on a college campus.
Although it occupies a smallish storefront next to Walmart, the restaurant has about 20 tables and booths on the ground floor plus seating on an upper level that appeared unused on both of our visits. It also boasts a small outdoor patio with another 10 or so tables.
With its greeting of “sahtain” — an Arabic wish for good health and a good meal — the menu stresses healthful eating. Many options are vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten-free. Everything from the raw juices to the entrees featured fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.
For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern food or overwhelmed by the extensive menu, we recommend starting with the Vegetarian Combo ($12.25, plus 65 cents for a side of hot sauce). This appetizer includes several of the most well-known dishes that are available as individual appetizers: generous scoops of hummus (a dip of pureed chickpeas), baba ganoush (pureed eggplant) and tabouli (a salad of tomatoes, herbs and cracked wheat) plus four plum-sized falafel (fried patties made from mildly spiced chickpeas and fava beans) and two small dawali (grape leaves stuffed with rice, chickpeas and tomatoes).
The hummus was mild, smooth and creamy, while the baba ganush had a chunkier texture and a bright flavor, thanks to the lemon juice and garlic. The falafel, with their crisp exterior and well-seasoned filling, was a particular favorite. We used fresh, warm pita bread to scoop up the salads. Since two of us couldn’t eat the whole platter, we were given an extra package of pita to take home with the leftovers.
One diner described the Lentil Soup ($3.75 for a bowl) as just like his grandmother’s — the green soup was filled with lentils, swiss chard and potatoes and flavored with onions, celery and garlic.
The Chili with Chicken ($4.50; $3.75 for vegetarian) was a hearty bowl of kidney beans, vegetables and tomatoes topped with a sprinkling of cheddar cheese for an additional 65 cents. The chili was less spicy than we prefer, but the scoop of grilled chicken added a nice flavor. These bowls of soup were generous and also served with a triangle of pita bread — we couldn’t finish either bowl.
The Aladdin’s Chicken Pitza ($7.45) featured a thin, almost-crisp pita crust topped with grilled chicken, scallions, green peppers and drizzles of honey-Dijon and garlic sauces. It combined for a unique, fresh flavor. The large strips of nearly raw green pepper made for a pretty presentation, but overpowered the other ingredients.
The Taza Chicken Salad ($9.25) featured a bed of spinach and romaine lettuce topped with chopped squash, zucchini, tomatoes, grapes and marinated chicken plus dried cranberries, pine nuts and feta cheese. The combination of flavors worked well together, especially when combined with the honey Dijon dressing.
We tried two of the entrees from the Specialty Plates section: Aladdin’s Favorite Combo ($13.75) and the Flavor Savor Special ($10.25).
The Aladdin plate included three types of meat: beef kafta, sausage-like helpings of ground meat blended with onions, herbs and spices; shish kabob, or grilled beef tenderloin; and chicken tawook, or grilled chicken tenders. All the meat was served atop pilaf made with seasoned rice and vermicelli noodles. On the other half of the dinner plate was a fresh salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and Aladdin’s house dressing, a lemony, garlicky vinaigrette.
The Flavor Savor plate offered the beef kafta sausages and chicken mishwi — pieces of grilled chicken thigh — on the same rice pilaf. It included a smaller salad, one falafel patty and a huge scoop of hummus. This would be another good plate for someone looking to sample several foods.
We tried two of the dozen smoothie options ($3.85 each) and enjoyed both: the Tropical Storm blend of mango, guava and pineapple and the Crazy Berry mix of raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. Both were made with a base of banana, non-fat yogurt and honey.
We had to sample a piece of cake after being confronted with the tempting display case as soon as we walked in the door. We tried a slice of Chocolate Strawberry Cake ($5.95) that featured three layers of chocolate cake with a strawberry-flavored cream filling, white frosting and drizzles of chocolate and strawberry jelly. While tasty, the slice wasn’t as fresh as we’d like: the cake was a tad dry and the frosting tacky.
We’d advise that you go straight for the baklava. Aladdin’s offers four varieties of the flaky, nutty pastry: Bird’s Nest, Burma, Lady Fingers and Traditional Diamond; we tried the last two. The Diamond ($1.50) contained the traditional filling of ground walnuts while the Lady Fingers ($1.25) were filled with cashews. Both were sprinkled with pistachio dust and were mildly sweet but not dripping with sticky goo. We loved them — they were a perfect size for anyone wanting a bit of dessert even though you’re stuffed from dinner.