Classic Mezze: Babaganoush, Tabbouleh, Falafel, Hummus, with Garnish of Pita Bread, Feta, Pickled Cucumber, Tomato Slice and Iceberg Lettuce Leaf; Mejaddarah: Rice with Lentils Garnished with Fried Onions, Side of Yogurt and Cucumber Salad; Lentil Soup
Occupation: Partner in Green Public Relations Firm
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Baladie Gourmet Cafe
Reviewed Baladie Gourmet Cafe: Monday July 9, 2007
One of the perks of working in downtown San Francisco is the long list of simple cafes featuring Middle Eastern food. In the interest of peace between Jews and Palestinians, I try to frequent Palestinian-owned cafes. I try out my rusty Arabic to test the patience of the counter folks, throw in a few arguably sedate belly-dance moves, and threaten to return someday with my darbekke (hand drum) to liven the place up if it’s not rocking already. I also adore the Palestinian flavor profile, which is heavy on the lemon and super-fruity olive oil, features sunny-clime vegetables, and uses meat more as a flavoring than as center of the plate.
Baladie Cafe is a favorite. I can walk the five blocks from work without struggling with parking. The neighborhood teams with office workers out seeking culinary delights along Kearny Street and environs. Baladie -- the word means "in a country manner, perhaps bucolic pastoral" -- features most of the classics -- mezze, falafel, shawarma -- but also unusual treats, such as fattoush (a bread and vegetable salad -- the name means "fatty," with the typical gentle Middle Eastern humor kidding the eater that they are so piggy that they have to eat bread even in their salad!), mejaddara (lentils and rice), and pies made of olive oil dough stuffed with spinach, feta, and spiced meats.
Visiting early in the lunch hour on a sleepy Monday with a co-worker, we split the mezze platter and the mejaddara, shared a spinach feta pie, and indulged in two desserts. The cafe was unusually quiet, so we scored a corner table in the cheerfully decorated dining area where the tables are rickety, the seats miserably uncomfortable and totally worth suffering for the food, and the lines of eager eaters snake through the cafe. No music today, although the speakers usually thrum with classic Arabic folks tunes and the occasional judiciously chosen Turkish pop. The counter guy, same one there for years, is always willing to indulge my questions about the food and awkward Arabic praises for the eating experience. He seems truly pleased to see me.
The mezze platter was generous, featuring creamy hummus with a nice dose of good quality olive oil, smoky babaganoush (you can tell which chefs oven roast the eggplants and which sear it over an open flame --Baladie does it right!), tabbouleh with very fresh flat-leaf parsley, the barest flecks of bulgur wheat, and small chopped tomatoes like jewels on top. The dressing had a nice punch of lemon, the perfect balance for the world’s most tonic salad. The falafel, although not warm from the fryer as I’d hoped, had an appropriately crunchy crust and a tender, bright green middle. Expert mezze eaters ignore the bread (not being fatties!) and use the falafel to scoop up the hummus and babaganoush. The feta and pickle garnish were of better quality than many dive cafes; I wondered if the cheese was French Valbreso. Wish it were local, but that’s for a later dream of mine to green ethnic restaurants in the Bay Area. Also wish for a hit of red pepper sauce to balance out the sublime creaminess.
Thank Allah for no dolmas -- I’ve never had one that could compete with my almost-mother-in-laws’ (the Palestinian engineer wouldn’t marry me, despite my cooking and dancing skills!), so I was happy not to see those on the plate. Dolmas are insanely labor-intensive to make, and belong in the home kitchen full of aunts and cousins, who can spend all day smoking in secret, drinking Arak, and rolling gazillions of grape leaves around rice with a hit of meat and secret spices that I would not reveal under any circumstances not involving a comp meal at the French Laundry.
The mejaddara was a giant portion of subtly spiced rice, dotted with earthy lentils, and topped with onions fried in olive oil. This is considered the food of the poor, and many folk songs sing paens to this food, warbling "give the stinking meats to the filthy rich -- we are content with our rice and lentils, the humble but most delicious food of the poor!" It’s comfort food at its best -- simple, basic, healthy, with a touch of indulgence in the fried onions. This day’s mejaddara was slightly less spectacular than usual -- it can be ordered with a side of meat if you’re feeling filthy; juicy pieces of chicken breast dusted with tangy sumac berry flecks being my favorite --but on this day I skipped the meat and admit wished I’d ordered it. Still, I’ll go back again and again for a dish you don’t find as a standard offering in most Middle Eastern cafes. The yogurt side salad was exceptional -- tangy, creamy yogurt that tasted like homemade, spiked with crunchy fresh cucumbers.
The spinach feta pie was also a standout -- a welcoming triangle of dough redolent of good quality olive oil, a nice softness on the bite, and a welcomingly chewy interior. The interior is stuffed with spinach spiked with lemon, so combined with the feta it became one of the holy trinities of flavor. No, for the Jewish food aficionados, the shape does not resemble a hamantaschen. Far more generous. I can’t remember what the heck it’s called. You can just point at it in the case.
Desserts are always risky, as the run-of-the-mill baklava is never sufficiently fresh. Baladie’s held up with that magical combination of crunch in the filo dough followed by the pow of sweet syrup. Walnuts in the baklava, followed by pistachios in the burfi (might not be the right name, I can never remember the name for the shredded wheat desserts. The regional variation in Arabic names is guilty, not my food lexicon, I swear!) with the same flavor profile, but the temptingly weird texture of strands of crispy wheat followed by the richness of nuts and the pow of sweet syrup.
Salaam, shalom, howdy-do to the country café. Can I go again today?
Occupation: Certified Public Accountant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Marché Aux Fleurs
Reviewed Baladie Gourmet Cafe: Saturday July 14, 2007
So we went on a Saturday, which is probably not their busiest time, as I am sure it is a popular lunch place during the week in that location near downtown. The guys behind the counter were really nice and helpful, and I ordered the gyro and my fiancé ordered the falafel. Of course we were the only ones there, so the service better be good. It was very quick, so no complaints.
Now I preface my review of the food by saying that my fiancé is from Israel and I went with her to this place. She knows her gyro and falafel. The space is generally very dirty and rundown with a big mural of Petra on the wall. I realize it is meant to be a simple deli, but the chairs were uncomfortable, and it just didn't feel clean in there. I realize it's not the sort of place that you go to for the ambiance, but on the other hand, the drink refrigerator had leftover falafel balls in a giant bag sitting in there. I thought the meat used in my gyro was borderline okay, and tasted like a reheat from yesterday.
Maybe, had I gone on a weekday, it would have been fresher. I was looking to see one of those giant slabs of meat spinning on the skewer but I didn't see that, and I am not sure how they cooked the meat. I really like a gyro with spicy sauce, and they asked me if I wanted it spicy, but I was disappointed in the type of sauce used. The Blue Front Cafe on Haight and Masonic Street is really a much better version of what I wanted this place to be, based on their menu. I wouldn't go back, but that's OK as I can still taste this gyro every once in a while! It is cheap but no less than any other place serving this type of stuff.
Occupation: Special Education Instructor
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Sumi
Reviewed Baladie Gourmet Cafe: Thursday July 12, 2007
If the gang on the Jerry Seinfeld show ever came to San Francisco, they would feel right at home in the “Soup Nazi” style, downtown hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Baladie Gourmet Café. The food is so good you just want to go back for more, if you can stand to be intimidated by the staff, the atmosphere, and the set up.
My friend and I walked up to the busy eatery on a Wednesday at the peak of the lunch hour. There were people sitting at two tables out on the sidewalk in front, and there was a line of people inside waiting to order. While waiting in line, we read the extensive overhead menu, including many vegetarian dishes. Aside from the items on the regular menu, daily specials written on hunks of paper were taped up and hanging from the menu board. Looking around, I noticed that there were only a few tables in the very cramped space and that they were all squished together. I asked my friend to grab a seat while I stayed in line to order. He went over, sat down, and tried to wipe off one of the tables, as they were all looking quite worn and dirty. As I got closer in line to ordering I noticed a display case with examples of some of the salads and desserts. The grilled eggplant salad with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and roasted red peppers looked good so I ordered one of those. My friend wanted to try the Chicken Lavash Deluxe with mesquite breast, hummus, spinach, rice and lentil, tabouli, tahini sauce, tomato, and cucumbers. I also got the daily special, a large cup of lentil soup and a slice of spanakopita. For dessert we both got the baklava.
The impatient cashier asked if I wanted my soup and Chicken Lavash spicy, and when I asked,” How spicy is the spicy?” He hurriedly replied, “I’ll give you medium.” As he was ringing up my order, I asked him about ordering drinks and he pointed “over there” behind the crowd of people to a self-serve soda fountain and a beverage cooler with bottled drinks. When I asked if I had to get back in line to purchase them, he gave me the, "dah, of course" look. So, not wanting to make waves, I did. I then went to the counter next to the kitchen and pick-up area to get some of the flimsy, miniature plastic eating utensils and napkins. All the while a worker was literally screaming order numbers in my ear. Looking up, I noticed a heavily dirt-encrusted ceiling fan above the pick-up/kitchen area and was just happy that it wasn’t turned on, as I’m sure all of the dust hanging down from it would be dropping on the food orders below. Luckily, most of the food is packaged to go, whether you are eating there or not.
Finally seated, my friend and I looked around, soaking up the "authentic atmosphere." The floor, walls, and tables are all quite worn and haven’t been cleaned forever. The décor consists of, as my friend said, "A unique mish-mash at best." There is a life-size plastic palm tree and a huge Ionic Greek column both wrapped in glowing twinkle lights and propped up in the corner. The foam padding was coming out of the worn Mexican print covers on the bench seating. A dead flower arrangement, by Morticia of the Addams family fame I presume, sat on the counter next to the cash register. Each table had a cruet of olive oil and wooden salt and pepper shakers appropriately marked S and P with a black magic marker.
In fairly short order, we heard our number being screamed out, so I rushed to the pick-up counter (mainly to stop the yelling ASAP). Back at the table, we opened the salad container with the huge, colorful eggplant salad and dug in, bumping elbows with the customers at the next table. The salad ingredients were all quite fresh and had a just-right, lightly seasoned balsamic dressing. The lentil soup was very flavorful and hearty with big chunks of carrots, potatoes and chopped pieces of pita bread (like soft croutons I guess?). They must puree the lentils, as we couldn’t actually see them. The spanakopita was wonderful with a nice, flakey filo dough crust and moist spinach filling. The chicken in the huge lavash was tender, juicy and plentiful, although the sauce could have been spicier. (I shouldn’t have questioned the spicy factor, I guess.) The walnut baklava was sweet and nutty, but kind of dry. We both prefer the gooey kind.
The next day, I went back again with another friend and we tried the dip platter and the gyro and shawarma wraps. They were all just as huge and delicious as the first time around. This time we decided to take our food out and eat it in a clean, quiet place, (at the lovely umbrella covered tables all through Embarcadaro Center) as I’m sure most people do. We also noticed that they have an extensive catering menu for the surrounding office buildings, no doubt.
On the back of the takeout menu, the restaurant has "Our Pledge." It states that, "Our goal is to bring Traditional, Healthy, Hometown, Middle Eastern cuisine served in an Authentic Atmosphere. We offer the freshest products spiced to perfection. Our order of the day is to serve you promptly and courteously.” The healthy part could be improved with some extensive cleaning, and I can’t really attest to the courteous service. And as my friend said, "If the Baladie Gourmet Cafe boasts of authentic atmosphere, then the Middle East must be in even sorrier condition than I thought!"
All in all I would recommend the huge portions of fresh, tasty food to anyone working downtown as a good value and a nice break from fast food chains. To really enjoy it though, I suggest that you eat it in a clean, quiet place far, far away from the “gourmet” cafe.