Alibi V.24 No.6 • Feb 5-11, 2015 

Restaurant Review

Middle Eastern EDo

Yasmine’s Café

Lamb kebabs
Lamb kebabs
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Yasmine’s Café has gone through several changes of ownership in the dozen years it’s been open. Depending on who you ask, these changes have been for the better or worse. But on a recent night, I sat alone at a table and counted 16 other customers besides myself, all of whom were chattering in Arabic. Many wore head scarves. Children were running around. It had the feel of a meeting spot for that demographic, even if the spell was temporarily broken when a few college kids wandered in for gyro sandwiches.

Unlike many of its peers at the top of Albuquerque’s Middle Eastern cuisine, Yasmine’s Café does not double as a Halal food mart. It’s a simple, austere open dining room, where the food is brought to you after ordering at the counter. Whichever management was behind the décor did an impressive job rolling with the cinder block construction of the walls by painting them clay colored and accentuating, rather than hiding, the joints between the blocks. The walls now appear to be built from cinder block-sized adobe bricks.

The rice has a bit of a chile kick, with a hint of sweetness, although this impression might be the result of the rice’s many fragrant spices. The seasoning includes whole cardamom pods that give a stout hello when you bite down on them, but aren’t unpleasant. In fact, they turn the unique flavor up to 11.

Fridays, being an important Islamic holy day, are special at Yasmine’s. It’s the one day that you can get rotisserie chicken without ordering it a day in advance. It’s also the day of braised lamb shank. Both chicken and lamb are served with soup—tomato-based okra during my last visit—and a pile of special red rice. The rice has a bit of a chile kick, with a hint of sweetness, although this impression might be the result of the rice’s many fragrant spices. The seasoning includes whole cardamom pods that give a stout hello when you bite down on them, but aren’t unpleasant. In fact, they turn the unique flavor up to 11.

The lamb shank arrives on an impressive length of shin bone that dwarfs the actual size of the meat. Having been slow cooked for hours, the connective tissues have melted into a creamy substance that makes your lips sticky and gives the feeling of fat, but it isn’t. The meat, mildly seasoned, is spoon tender and delicious. The roti chicken can be a bit dry if you get there by the end of the day, but is nevertheless a tasty meal. And if you arrive late, you also run the risk of having all of the portions already sold out. At 7pm we got the last order each of breast and thigh, the latter of which was a bit more moist.

The menu board echoes those of other Halal restaurants around town, with kebabs, shawarma, hummus, etc. But if you look a little closer, you’ll spot less familiar options.

Lentil soup
Lentil soup
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The lentil soup is one that could easily fly under the radar, but turned out to be one of the tastiest bowls of lentil soup I’ve ever eaten. I’m used to a lentil soup in which you can make out the individual lentils. The bowl at Yasmine’s, by contrast, was completely puréed, and a bit thin, somewhat like a bisque. It had a splash of olive oil on top and carried a hint of cumin. It was subtle, but at the same time, spectacular.

Another unique item on the menu is the Mexiterranean burger, which aims to be a Middle Eastern version of the green chile cheeseburger. It’s a marinated beef patty served in a pita with green chile and garlic sauce. Alas, when I ordered this burger, it didn’t contain New Mexico-style green chile, but rather minced peperoncini-style peppers. It was still a great burger, but if I’m not mistaken, in these parts it’s at least a misdemeanor to call those little pickled peppers green chiles.

According to my research on the internet, I should note, some diners have reported that it is, in fact, real green chile on the Mexiterranean burger. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true for them because my few visits were marked by a bit of inconsistency.

The current owner is an eager host, constantly making the rounds to ensure customer satisfaction. But when he’s not in the house, the dining experience suffers. Once, on a Monday night, I had the misfortune of ordering some take-out just before a large group placed an order. About 10 minutes after the order behind mine was placed, I was informed that the fish and chips I’d ordered wasn’t available. Before choosing a replacement, I asked if there were any dishes I should avoid as take-out options because they don’t travel well. To clarify, I gave an example. “Like, the couscous, is that an OK dish to order as take-out?”

He said, sure, anything would be fine to go. So I ordered the couscous.

“We don’t sell couscous anymore.”

I ordered some lamb kebabs instead and sipped on some “Arab tea with mint” while I waited. It was a nice cup of tea, served in a crystal cup, and was unusually non-bitter for black tea. Alas, I didn’t detect any mint in it.

Long after the people who ordered after me were served, I finally got my kebabs.

It was a bit frustrating, but at the same time, they were awesome kebabs, with juicy, fatty chunks of lamb and a fantastic, garlicky dipping sauce. At five bucks for a kebab, it was a fine deal for the amount of meat I got.

Another great deal is the stuffed eggplant. It’s officially an appetizer, but is nonetheless a substantial serving. The cut ends of the eggplant are capped with preserved tomatoes, and the tomato-logged rice stuffing is mouth-meltingly soft. The eggplant itself had just enough rigidity to hold it all together without collapsing. The flavors merged delicately and effortlessly in my mouth. A truly wonderful dish.

As for the standby dishes they’re a bit of a mixed bag. The baba ghanoush was smoky and chunky with just the right amount of tang, although a bit slimy—as baba can be—in case you’re sensitive. The hummus, served with a sprinkle of purple sumac powder and chopped peperoncinis, was creamy and smooth.

The kibbeh was excellent, faintly aromatic with cinnamon or allspice, and the grain and meat were ground into a seamless paste, such that it was hard to know where grain ends and meat begins. The gyro was great as well. It was full of meat and salad, and the yogurt dill sauce made the side it contacted soggy, while the other side remained chewy.

Several trays of homemade desserts adorn the counter, including baklava and some other, less identifiable yet no less delicious options, including one that’s like a sweet cheese-stuffed phyllo roll.

If Middle Eastern food is your thing, Yasmine’s Café belongs on your radar.

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Yasmine’s Café

1600 Central SE
242-1980

Hours: 10am to 9pm, Monday through Saturday
10am to 7pm, Sunday
Vibe: Casual, minimal
Plastic: Yes.
Booze: Not Halal, bro.

The Alibi recommends: Lentil soup, stuffed eggplant, Friday specials, especially the lamb shank, $5 a la carte kebabs or the kebab plate