Ali Baba Middle Eastern Restaurant

Flavor: Middle Eastern
Ambiance: Homey and small
Service: Pleasant

Amro, Fathi, and Reda Ali want you to eat like they do.

The family, which hails from Alexandria, Egypt, operates Ali Baba Middle Eastern Restaurant, a buffet tucked away in the Grove Arcade. For some, the word “buffet” conjures up images of congealed casseroles and limp lettuce, so the term seems a bit unjust. What the Ali family whips up in their eatery is better described as a light feast – a sampling of tradition that’s been brought half way around the world.

Ten years ago, Fathi, his wife Reda, and their then-teenage son Amro moved from Egypt to be closer to another son who was studying at Western Carolina University. Asheville seemed like just the right place to settle; it was close to WCU, had the right atmosphere, and was, Amro says, leagues quieter than Cairo.

A decade later, 23-year-old Amro is not only the owner of Ali Baba, he also holds a master’s degree in chemical engineering. “This is a start,” Fathi says in reference to the restaurant, “but he dreams big.”

In fact, “big” is the last word that comes to mind the first time you see Ali Baba. The restaurant is truly tiny, encompassing only about 250 square feet, including the kitchen.

Asked how the family manages to operate a fully functional restaurant in such a small space, Reda’s answer is matter-of-fact: “We manage. We have to.”

She admits that she was skeptical at first. The first time she saw the space, she says, she exclaimed to her husband and son, “Where will we cook?!” They replied by telling her: “Look in your kitchen. Did you not cook everything [for your family and guests] in your kitchen?”

And so, it was settled.

Fathi went to work, designing and building almost everything in the restaurant himself. With such a small space to work with, every inch had to be utilized, so he built storage cabinets under the steam tables and combed restaurant-supply stores for such wares as a wedge-shaped trash can to sit inconspicuously in the corner.

The construction completed, Fathi went to work in the kitchen when Ali Baba opened in March. He conjures up traditional Middle Eastern food, and with more than 20 years of experience as a chef, his results are impressive. Ali Baba dishes out an array of good eats that are, as the restaurant’s Web site proclaims, “homemade, cooked fresh, and without any additives.”

“Everything is made from scratch, like we do at home,” Reda says. The buffet is refreshed throughout the day, with a brand new batch whipped up for dinner. And there are no warmed-up leftovers from the day before. “We always start fresh,” she adds. “We want the people to eat like we do.”

Having sampled the buffet on many occasions, it appears to me that the Ali family eats quite well. The garlicky-good hummus, ground from whole chickpeas that are soaked and cooked in the traditional manner, is great by itself, and sometimes the dish is spiked with fresh red peppers or herbs. Chickpeas also find their way into the fresh and fluffy falafel patties – the best I’ve ever tried – along with fava beans, herbs, leeks, green onions and garlic. Fans of fava beans can also find the legume in another dish Ali Baba often offers: the ful medames, a flavorful stew that Egyptian street venders often served at breakfast time.

Depending on when you visit, you might find baba ganoush – my favorite incarnation of the humble eggplant – or Moussaka-style eggplant. Or perhaps tabbouleh or lemony potato salad, both laced with fresh parsley. There’s always salad, sometimes several different types. I’ve sampled a cucumber salad with homemade yogurt and fresh mint, a simple green salad and an artichoke salad, and enjoyed them all.

Though much of Ali Baba’s food is vegetarian, meat eaters will find items, like chicken kebabs, that they can enjoy. In addition to the buffet, several freshly made sandwiches are available, as well as a selection of beverages, including thick fruit nectars and (by request) Turkish coffee infused with a pinch of cardamom.

With the addition of fresh-baked pita bread and Fathi’s homemade baklava, a plate of food from this buffet – at $4.75 a pound – might just be the best deal in town.

“We don’t want to shock the people with the high price,” Reda explains. “Our customers are working people.”

Indeed, the restaurant is engineered to serve busy customers, especially those on their lunch break, quickly and healthfully. “At lunch, Americans like to make it fast,” Fathi observes. “It takes away from the quality of the food.” “We want everyone to afford to eat good, healthy food,” Amro adds.

And healthy it is. According to a study published in the December 2004 Journal of the American Medical Association, sticking to a Mediterranean diet – which includes Middle Eastern staples – significantly cuts the risk of death from both heart disease and cancer, and also helps reduce obesity and high blood sugar.

So it’s a good thing for Asheville that the Ali family set up shop here. For the price of a frozen frapa-whatever at a corporate coffee chain, you can buy a pound of good, wholesome food that’s made by really nice people in the tiniest restaurant you’re likely to see outside of New York City. Plus, you’ll get to eat like you’re a member of the family.

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