A taste of Palestine on Central
By Scott Sharot
From the moment we walked into Yasmine's Café, I could tell we were in for the real deal. There was the tantalizing aroma of garlicky meats rotating on their spits in the open kitchen, the Arabic-speaking clientele sipping hot tea from tall glass tumblers and a display shelf full of hookahs—there's a large selection of sizes and styles of these fancy water pipes you can purchase for later use. In coffeehouses and cafés in the Arab-speaking world, coffee and tobacco go together like lattes and laptops here in the States (although this is no longer so in Albuquerque, since the city's ban on smoking in public spaces). My friend and dining companion immediately commented on how much the place looked and felt like any number of Palestinian restaurants he frequented while living in the Middle East. I've never been to Israel or Palestine but there's an earthiness about the space that feels authentic to me. Dining at Yasmine's is like stepping off Central and onto another continent.
The décor here is pretty utilitarian, with café tables covered in blue plastic cloths and an array of silk flowers and plants. The walls are decorated with what seems like both sacred and secular art, including giant beads. It's hard not to shake and shimmy to the ardent music that dances through the speakers, and it's easy to hear flamenco's Islamic roots in the rhythms and soulful singing style of this enchanting music.
Appetizers like delicious dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) or falafel (spicy balls of spiced chick pea flour) were a mere 35 cents each. I can't remember the last time I saw anything on a menu for 35 cents, let alone food of this caliber. The grape leaves were tender and infused with the rich taste of olive oil, plus just the right spicing in the flavorful rice stuffing. The falafel was also quite good, nicely browned, not greasy, and had a nice balance of spices.
While standing at the counter trying to decide what to order, I asked my usual annoying round of questions about ingredients and preparation. I wondered if the kibbeh contained raw meat like it does in Lebanon. The chef handed me a piece of kibbeh and said, “It's different from Lebanese; try it, you'll like it.” He was right. It was very different from Lebanese kibbeh and featured cooked, spiced beef and nuts inside cracked wheat that was deep-fried. Without seeming ungrateful for his generosity, I still prefer the raw Lebanese style with lamb.
Salads on the menu are very similar; they contain tomatoes and/or cucumbers ($1.99) with different dressings. Each one is refreshing, and a perfect compliment for either the vegetarian or meat dishes. The Jerusalem salad features cucumber and tomato with tahini (a rich sesame paste) and lemon. The Arabic salad had a simpler dressing of olive oil and lemon, and the yogurt salad is similar to raita with just cucumber and yogurt. My favorite salad was the tabouleh ($3.99). It's a grain salad that's made with bulgur (cracked wheat), tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, fresh mint and (if it's made correctly) lots of fresh, flat-leaf parsley. Tabouleh should be green. This outstanding version is verdant with parsley and lots of lemon, just as it should be.
There are a lot of choices for vegetarians and even vegans on this menu. My wife thoroughly enjoyed her vegetarian combo ($7.99), which was served on what seemed like a dozen small, separate plates, including a plate with bright purple pickled turnip, olives and pickles and another with fat pillows of house-made pita bread. The combo came with a turmeric-laced pureed lentil soup made with yellow lentils and sizeable portions of the four aforementioned salads and excellent hummus. This rich, velvety version is served with a pool of fruity olive oil in the center and garnished with lines of sumac (a purplish-red colored sour, astringent-tasting herb often used in Middle Eastern cuisines) and very finely minced parsley. Also included was a very respectable baba ghannouge (mashed roasted eggplant with tahini) and there were also two kinds of falafel on the combo plate, one plain and one stuffed with almonds and onions, quite good and unlike any I'd ever tasted.
I opted for the combination plate with chicken and beef ($10.99). It included generous portions of several meats including shish takouk (an outrageously delicious moist, garlicky chicken), kefta kebob (spiced minced meat), beef shish kebob and beef shawerma (slices of marinated beef). Owner Hussein Awad was happy to point out that all of the meat dishes are made in-house and the lamb is Halal, which means the meat must pass strict dietary guidelines similar to kosher rules, which bans the use of antibiotics and hormones.
There's a fancy display case that houses a very impressive selection of house-made phyllo pastries in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes. Don't miss a piece of the amazing pistachio baklava ($1.59); it was spectacular, the best of its kind in town. You can also enjoy a thick Turkish coffee with your sweets.
Yasmine's Café; 1600 Central SE; 242-1980; Hours: Mon-Sat 10 a.m-9 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive to moderate; Visa and MasterCard accepted.
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