Pita King in Minneapolis

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Culinary excellence does not necessarily come with a marketing plan, or a vibrant online presence, or a beautifully crafted dining room. Sometimes you find great food in unexpected places — in a strip mall, or next to a pawn shop, or stuffed into the cozy, hut-like confines of the former Franklin Freeze ice cream shop.

That last example is the story of Pita King, an unpretentious little Middle Eastern restaurant that one of our readers told us to visit for its kofta and (most particularly) its maybe-best-in-the-city baklava.

Based on our fairly extensive ongoing survey of local baklava, the reader is correct: Pita King’s baklava might be the best around. The baklava at Filfillah and Gyropolis is neck-and-neck, and some of that comes down to personal preferences. Where some first-rate baklava is fairly light and elegant, Pita King’s is dense, richly nutty in a pistachios-and-walnuts kind of way, warmly spiced, and utterly indulgent. For $4 a box, it’s a steal, as it’s surely some of the tastiest pastry in the state.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

So maybe the baklava is the headline, but the truth is that everything we tried at Pita King ranged from good to great. We’ve had a lot of miserable falafel around here — sandy, gritty, overcooked, stuffed into stale pitas with nothing beyond a fatty sauce and old lettuce to keep it company — and Pita King’s Falafel Sandwich ($6) has none of those problems. The balance between pita, falafel, lettuce, and tomatoes is just right. The falafel is light and crunchy, and while thoroughly fried, it’s not greasy or charred.

We had some stellar Grilled Kofta the last time we were at Young Joni, and it’s no small thing to say that the stuff at Pita King ($6) gives it a run for its money. The meat was tender, mellow, deeply spiced, properly seasoned, and lamb-y without being too earthy or funky.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We dug the grape leaves (Dolmades, $4), which — in contrast to many that we’ve had on Central Avenue and elsewhere — were remarkably fresh and pliable, with an incredibly bright, lemony acid kick that made them the perfect complement to the heavier dishes on the menu.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Also quite good was the Chicken Schwarma Sandwich ($6), which featured thin slices of mild pickles and small, tender French fries along with cinnamon-warmed bits of tender chicken in a pita. Like everything else at Pita King, the right balance of pita to vegetables to protein meant that this sandwich tasted light and delicious, not greasy or overbearing.

Pita King’s interior is small — just a counter, a cramped kitchen, and a few little tables crammed together. But its spirit is large, and the food is delicious, and that’s ultimately what matters.

Pita King
Middle Eastern in Seward, Minneapolis

2328 E Franklin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55406
612.345.5931
HOURS:
Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun closed
BAR: Beer and wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE:
 $6-$9
NOISE LEVEL: Fairly quiet, Middle Eastern music
PARKING: Small lot, some street parking

Jambo! Kitchen in Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis

Jambo! Kitchen, the new restaurant in Cedar-Riverside’s African Development Center, is out to replicate the success of its predecessor, Afro-Deli, which moved to the East Bank of the University of Minnesota.

Chef Jamal Hashi’s “fast casual” menu draws inspiration from East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and features rice bowls, tacos, and sandwiches. But the crown jewel? Bold and beautiful bisbaas sauce. Featuring garlic and peppers (jalapeño, we believe), the fiery Somali condiment burned our innards and won our hearts.

Our first date with bisbaas was unexpected. Unfamiliar with the sauce offerings for a lamb rice bowl ($8, below), we simply selected the one with the coolest sounding name. The bowl didn’t need a condiment — gyro-like lamb, yellow-tinted “African rice,” and small pieces of fresh pineapple were a well-balanced flavorful combo — but the bisbaas is what landed the lamb bowl at the top of the Heavy Table’s weekly Hot Five list. It was a revelation, like the first time we spooned a dollop of chimichurri onto a juicy hanger steak.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Working our way through the menu, bisbaas remained our faithful sidekick. For instance, the sandwiches we tried lacked chutzpah, but bisbaas added some much-needed attitude. Without it, The Haji ($7, below) — ground beef, fresh vegetables, and a Thousand-Island-style dressing on a sturdy roll — was satisfying but not attention grabbing, and its accompanying fresh-cut fries literally fell down on the job.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Even Chef Hashi’s best-known dish, Sahel Sliders ($8, below), didn’t win us over. Lean, ground camel patties weren’t particularly flavorful, but were too chewy for our tastes. A dense pretzel bun accentuated the unfortunate texture. Happily, some sweet pickles and, of course, a slathering of the lovely, light-green bisbaas sauce provided character.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Only one main dish didn’t beg for bisbaas — the Manchurian taco ($5, below). A refreshingly creative vegetarian option, the taco features a wonderful paratha bread “tortilla” filled with cauliflower florets. But the concoction is too rich, and big flavors fight each other. The coating on the “Manchurian” cauliflower and a lather of Thousand Island-ish sauce smothered fresh celery, carrot, and cabbage, and gave the taco an unpleasant level of sweetness. Bisbass would only have added to the chaos.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

We were slightly more disposed to a Vegetarian Sambusa ($2). We again admired the shell, which was light and had a nice crackle, like a wonton. The stuffing, however, was ho-hum, bringing to mind the frozen “mixed vegetables” we pushed aside as kids.

Taken together, the food at Jambo! Kitchen is decidedly uneven — not unusual for such a young restaurant. But if Chef Hashi successfully recalibrates some of his promising dishes and keeps the bisbaas flowing, Jambo! may very well rival the success of its predecessor.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Jambo! Kitchen
Fast casual African in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis

1939 5th St S
Minneapolis, MN 55455
612.354.7251
GENERAL MANAGER / CHEF:  Mahad Ibrahim / Jamal Hashi
HOURS:
Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
BAR: No
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE:
 $5-$8
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street

Heavy Table Hot Five: May 12-18

hotfive-flames

Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email editor@heavytable.com.

shepherd-song-banner-ad-horiz-3The Hot Five is a weekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm.

shepherd-song-green-keyline

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - one - hot fiveLoukoumades at The Naughty Greek
Desserts at The Naughty Greek are an unexpected powerhouse. The Call Me Fluffy (Loukoumades) are described as “fluffy mini donuts served warm with Greek thyme honey, cinnamon and powdered sugar,” but they’re closer to the offspring of a beignet married to a hunk of State Fair funnel cake. They’ve got a beignet’s shape and something of its tender interior, but the exterior is crunchier and rougher, and it lacks the beignet’s elasticity. The thyme honey and cinnamon dipping sauce is delightful, and the combination with the warm doughnuts is a happy one indeed.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an upcoming review by James Norton]

Amy Rea / Heavy Table
Amy Rea / Heavy Table

2-new - two - hot fiveBulgogi Burger at Gogi Bros.
The Bulgogi Burger at Gogi Bros. is not so much a burger as it is a Korean barbecued beef sandwich. An enormous amount of tender, slightly sweet beef slices are matched by a robust helping of pungent, fried kimchi and pepperjack cheese. The fried egg is optional, but why not? Even the fries are excellent, very crispy and hot.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

3-new - three hot fiveLemonade at Zait and Za’atar
Zait and Za’atar’s fresh-squeezed lemonade may be the best in town. The sugar-to-citrus level is perfect: It’s incredibly tart and compensatingly sweet, with an herbal supporting note that makes for a deep, balanced, thirst-quenching beverage of the highest order.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted from an upcoming review by James Norton]

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

4-new four hot fivePork, Noodles, and Fire-Roasted Vegetables at the Fulton + Chef Camp Whole Hog Feast
Chef Camp’s Whole Hog feast was a union of many wonderful local forces: the wild rice noodles of Dumpling and Strand, pork from Tangletown Gardens Farm cooked by Erik Sather of Lowry Hill Meats, vegetables roasted by Yia Vang of Union Kitchen, and beer from Fulton, among others. The dish itself was delicious — rich, sweet, tender pork swimming in perfectly cooked al dente noodles with slightly charred, soft, fire-roasted veggies, all served up in a classic Chinese-American takeout container, followed by s’mores by North Mallow.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by James Norton]

Amy Rea / Heavy Table
Amy Rea / Heavy Table

5-new -five Emerson, Lake & Palmer at Rustica
Since I’m someone who’s not wild about sweet beverages, summer coolers can be hard to come by. Rustica Bakery fills the need with its Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a mixture of mouth-puckering grapefruit juice and iced black tea. If that’s too potent, you could add sugar. But if you’re like me, that zing is just the refreshing chill you need on a warm day.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Amy Rea]

Saffron is Closing

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

Saffron chef and co-owner Sameh Wadi announced the news of the restaurant’s upcoming closure on his personal Facebook page (via City Pages). The modern Middle Eastern eatery will serve its last meal on Dec. 3, and it will leave a hole in the marketplace with its departure — there’s nothing else like it in the state. Saffron fused classic Middle Eastern fare with sophisticated modern plating and imaginative reinvention, and helped change the way Minnesotans view food from the Mediterranean region. Wadi’s popular World Street Kitchen and Milkjam Creamery continue to boom, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see the former open another location in the near future.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

We reviewed Saffron positively in 2011, wrote about Wadi’s Spice Trail spice blends, interviewed Wadi about World Street Kitchen, and talked with the chef about his book, The New Mediterranean Table.

Moroccan Flavors at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Here in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, they’re seemingly everywhere: large bowls filled with carbs, protein, and veg. Comic Patton Oswalt famously coined the term “failure pile in a sadness bowl” for KFC’s gut-bomb version, but in the Twin Cities, where our local restaurants are creating some nourishing, surprising, and internationally inspired variations, we’re not yet set on a name: “Bowl Meals,” “Fill-Me-Ups,” “Meal-in-Bowl,” “All-in-Ones”? There’s World Street Kitchen’s Yum Yum Rice Bowls, Don Yang’s Bimbibab, Pimento’s Jerk Bowls, Trieu Chau’s Bun Thap Cam, and Dark Horse’s Rice Bowls, to name but a few. And now Moroccan Flavors, a recent addition to the Midtown Global Market, is upping the area’s all-in-one game with satisfying tagine and couscous dishes.

Moroccan Flavors illuminates a cavernous corner of the Global Market with bright food and even brighter blue walls, tables, and benches. Chef-owner Hassan Ziadi (below, left), who sharpened his skills in numerous local restaurants, including Aquavit, Sanctuary, and Vincent, runs the small kitchen with his wife, Samlali Raja. On both of our visits, Ziadi welcomed customers, patiently answered questions, and served his dishes with unmistakable joy and pride.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Ziadi’s sunny disposition and commitment to excellence comes through in his food. This is especially true in the braised beef tagine ($10), the undisputed star of the restaurant’s brief, focused menu. (Tagine gets is name from a ceramic pot with a conical top and flat base, ideal for slow-cooking stew.) Along with high quality, fork-tender cubes of beef, the dish includes turmeric rice moistened with beef broth, almond slices, and stewed apricots and prunes. Combined in a bowl, the ingredients make for a delicious, balanced, and texturally interesting entree and a fantastic introduction to Moroccan flavors. We’re already craving another.

Ziadi’s main vegetarian option ($8) is a winner, too. The chef tops fluffy, flavorful couscous with chickpeas, caramelized onions and raisins, and a gaggle of vegetables: carrot, butternut squash, turnip, and cabbage. Although satisfying, the naturally sweet dish needed a pinch of salt and a touch of acid. We recommend a side order of Ziadi’s wonderful charred, marinated peppers and briny olives to complete this bowl (sides are available as a combo for $9 or singly for $4.75).

Blackstone Bistro in St. Louis Park

Joe Krummel / Heavy Table
Joe Krummel / Heavy Table

Editor’s Note: Blackstone Bistro is now closed.

Though it sounds like an unholy alliance between an infamous former military contractor and the (fictional) shadowy government program that created Jason Bourne, Blackstone is, in fact, a recently opened Mediterranean fusion bistro in St. Louis Park.

We went, we ate, we shrugged.

Tucked into the affluent Excelsior & Grand residential and retail complex, the corporate feel of Blackstone fits right in — think lots of decorative brick arches, dark wood, white tablecloths, and dim lighting. The vibe is definitely “business lunch,” and the menu extends the something-for-everyone feel of the interior design. You’ll find some Mediterranean items alongside a deliriously vast and globe-spanning selection of entrees, pizza, pasta, burgers, soups, sides, sandwiches, and salads.

Joe Krummel / Heavy Table
Joe Krummel / Heavy Table

We began the meal with the Mediterranean Mix Appetizers ($16), composed of hummus, baba ghanoush, a cold mixture of roasted red peppers and artichokes, and fatoush salad. While the dish was generously portioned and sharable, we felt that its price was pretty high (a recurring theme), and that flavor was lacking. The spreads were fresh, but were missing depth — the baba ghanoush could have been smokier, and the hummus was rough-textured, bland, and in need of citrus. The salad was awash in a too-sweet vinaigrette, though nicely garnished with vegetables and fresh mint.

Joe Krummel / Heavy Table
Joe Krummel / Heavy Table

The flatbreads (pictured above: portobello) sounded intriguing, but ours fell, well, flat. The Alexandria Flatbread ($13.50) was topped with tomato pesto, figs, blue cheese, and a lot of arugula (though it wasn’t listed on the menu). The crust was mightily disappointing: spongy and limp, reminding us of the amateur error of cooking a Tombstone frozen pizza on a sheet pan instead of directly on the oven rack. The limpness was mysterious, as our side of pita bread was well-marked by a grill, and crisp — couldn’t Blackstone do the same for the flatbreads? The toppings, meanwhile, clashed in a dissonant mess of bitterness and blue-cheese funk.

Mezza at Beirut Restaurant in West St. Paul

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

Here’s how dinner starts at a certain kind of restaurant in the Middle East: You sit down. A waiter perfunctorily notes the number of people in your party. And then dishes just start appearing. Small dishes, mostly, but heaped high. There will be instantly recognizable things like hummus and baba ghanoush and falafel. There will probably be rice and meat wrapped in grape or cabbage leaves. It goes without saying that there will be baskets of pita. But then there will be all kinds of delicious things you may not know by name — various combinations of cauliflower and eggplant and tomatoes and tahini.

Just when you’re marveling that there isn’t a single visible square inch of table left, a waiter will shift a plate or a basket to make room for one more.

And these are just the appetizers.

Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table
Tricia Cornell / Heavy Table

That is the kind of experience you can start to recreate at Beirut Restaurant in West St. Paul when you order the mezza ($40 for two). Although the wave of dishes doesn’t quite cover the table, it is just about the most celebratory way I can think of to spend a meal.

Mezza is a family-style free-for-all with big flavors on little plates. It’s a homey and welcoming ritual meal meant to be enjoyed slowly: a smear of labneh (a thick, creamy cross between yogurt and cheese), then a little conversation. A bite of kibbe (raw or baked meat mixed with grains and seasoning), then maybe a heartfelt argument about the possibilities for peace in the Middle East. “Pass the pita, dear,” then, “Whoa, is that a bellydancer?” (Saturdays at 8 p.m., yes.)

Breakfast at Shish Cafe in St. Paul

Chaksuka at Shish Cafe in St. Paul
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The Middle East may be one of the most contentious parts of the world, but regardless of political or religious beliefs, everyone can agree on one thing: Breakfast rules. Because who needs pancakes and waffles when you can get softly cooked eggs in tomato-pepper sauce or slow-simmered fava beans ready for scooping? At Shish Cafe, a small but charming hideout tucked next to the Italian Pie Shoppe near St. Paul’s Macalester College, you can get a hearty, flavorful, and bargain breakfast that will make you a convert to Middle Eastern breakfasts — heavy on the veggies, eggs, and spices — forever.

If last night was a rough one, the Shish Breakfast ($9) will cure whatever ails you, because once you face the enormous plate of chicken shawarma (or gyro), braised eggs, potatoes, and fruit, you will forget your woes and concentrate on one thing: how you will finish it all. The shawarma boasts a crusty, spice-licked exterior that partners well with the layer of garlicky tzatziki between the chicken and the pita upon which it’s served. The yolks of the perfectly cooked eggs ooze slowly to create a second sauce you can lap up with the pita or use as a dip for the crispy, rosemary-scented potatoes. If you can’t down it all at once, take the rest home for when your hunger inevitably strikes again — probably around 4pm.

Equally tempting is the chaksuka (pictured at top, $9), a lovely jumble of scrambled eggs, grilled red peppers, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and onion. The garlic adds a welcome bite that cuts through the sweetness of the tomatoes and peppers, and the addition of yet another egg, this one braised, gilds the lily with its creamy, runny goodness folded into the mixture. A healthy serving of feta, olives, potatoes, and pita allows you to make each bite unique — one with a hunk of salty cheese, another shoveled into a wedge of thin pita topped with a briney olive.

Saffron in the Minneapolis Warehouse District

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Two restaurants straddle either side of North Third Street between First and Second avenues in downtown Minneapolis. On the north side is 112 Eatery, with a kitchen run by a James Beard Award-winning chef and accolades from everyone from The New York Times to your mother. It’s routinely singled out for its sophisticated yet affordable cuisine and is on the must-try list of every foodie in town.

Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never eaten there.

With a menu that features a pork product in at least half of its dishes — and shellfish in many of the remaining — I, a Jew who doesn’t eat either of those foods, don’t have much left to choose, and so I’ve never been. But don’t cry for me, Twin Cities. The restaurant on the south side of North Third, Saffron, is the answer to my pork-free prayers. And it’s no consolation prize — the top-notch Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food that graces the warm and vibrant dining room rivals the best dishes coming out of any area kitchen, and they back up my long-standing argument that you don’t need proscuitto or lardons to create a winning meal.

Chef Sameh Wadi, whose Muslim beliefs inform his decision to keep pork off his menu, instead has homed in on the flavors and spices that make the food from this region simultaneously exotic and comforting. Gently cooked vegetables, fragrant sauces, and tender meats benefit from a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of garlic, or a blend of fiery peppers. A dab of yogurt or a shower of coriander seeds can do as much for a dish as a crumbled slice of pancetta. With each bite you can taste the love and layers of flavor that generations of cooks have perfected — and Wadi has updated them for the present.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

A recent overhaul of the menu has led to a new focus on mezze (small plates), and you’d be smart to start off your meal with a bunch of them. Perhaps the hummus (above left, $6 plain / $8-9 with toppings) doesn’t tempt you due to its ubiquity these days, but don’t overlook it. This hummus is the real deal — light, lemony, and bursting with freshness. That pasty puree you buy at the grocery store shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath at Saffron’s hummus. For an extra treat, top it with bastirma, silky, house-cured beef that offers a slightly salty contrast to the smooth hummus. Or, if you insist on skipping the hummus, order the charred fresh chickpeas (above right, $6), which you squeeze out of the pods like edamame, capturing the bits of lemon juice and sea salt with each slurp. The starters match beautifully with the non-alcoholic refreshments ($4.50) on the drinks menu — go for the Blood & Fire with watermelon and cucumber, or a Moroccan Chiller with mango, pineapple, orange, hibiscus, and orange blossom water.

A taste of Spain comes in the form of chicken and mushroom croquettes ($6), which win you over with their crispy shell and warm, umami-rich filling. Greece shows up as grilled haloumi cheese ($5) sandwiched between thick cubes of watermelon and a sprinkle of mint. The bready cheese features a tasty layer of char atop a crumbly, salty interior, providing a pleasing contrast to the sweet, juicy melon and cool mint. The crispy potato chips ($5) are addictive enough on their own, but the addition of za’tar yogurt and piquillo pepper sauce give your tongue a hot-and-cold roller-coaster ride that takes the chips over the top. If you’d rather steer clear of the fryer, the slow cooked green beans ($6) satisfy with a spicy tomato sauce that may cause you to reach for your cocktail a few extra times (try the Saffron Rose with gin, saffron, rose water, and sparkling rosé) but still leaves you wanting more.