Sometimes it’s the simplest things that blow you away. A bite of perfectly moist chicken, an elusive, vibrant spiciness, an elegant blend of garlic and lemon. Lebanese cuisine is filled with such simple surprises, and Aladdin Mediterranean Restaurant offers some of the most authentic Lebanese cuisine around.
Owned by Camille Bsaibes, the Hillcrest restaurant is a rarity: a Lebanese-owned Lebanese restaurant. This means that dishes are authentic, family members are in the kitchen, and centuries-old recipes and spice blends predominate. In an era where nouvelle seems to be the standard and invention the norm, Aladdin’s simple and classic cuisine is a refreshing reminder that sometimes a return to the basics is in order.
A bright green awning and an inviting patio are all that announce the restaurant from the outside. Stepping through the doors, the decor is tasteful and welcoming. An inlaid-wood screen and antique cabinet greet guests, already suggesting the restaurant is not as modern as its surroundings. Lush red drapes adorn windows and doorways; light green walls have been sculpted into arches and faux columns. Gold and wood-inlaid designs adorn every table; comfortable chairs and elegant booths comprise seating options.
The two-room space looks small but is quite accommodating. The main dining room seats 50, and a smaller adjacent banquet room, which can be draped off for private parties, seats up to 30. The 20-seat outdoor patio is a third enticing option, and with San Diego's Mediterranean-like climate, seems prime territory for a leisurely meal.
The whole space is welcoming and warm. A constant stream of guests walks through the doors—a single diner, a family with young children, two women catching up after work, a party of eight in good spirits. An open kitchen sits behind large glass windows, and the fact that you can see your meal being prepared is one of many ways this feels like home.
Perhaps the main reason Aladdin seems so comfortable, though, is that it’s a family-run operation. When Camille Bsaibes bought the restaurant in 2003, he asked his father and mother in law to move to San Diego from Zahle, Lebanon. His mother in law, Nouch Saidy, does most of the prep work in the kitchen, his wife Eva is constantly monitoring quality, and Camile often serves as host, bringing his gracious hospitality to the restaurant. While the head chef, George Amador, isn’t a family member, he’s worked at Aladdin for over 10 years.
In addition to being family run, Aladdin is authentically Lebanese. Hommos, Tabouleh, and Kebah are all dishes that were invented in Lebanon, and here they are recreated using the same ingredients and spices. Other cuisines “copy” these dishes, Camile explains, but while there can be many different versions of hommos or tabouleh, few use the original recipes. At Aladdin, the dishes are all true to form.
There’s only one way to fully explore these dishes—order a Meza Platter for the table. Perhaps one of the most classic components of Lebanese cuisine, Meza is a collection of sauces, spreads, and small dishes meant to be shared. It can be eaten as part of a meal or constitute a meal in itself. The Aladdin Meza Platter arrives on the table as an array of small bowls, each its own delight—hommos, tabouleh, baba ganouj, chicken shawerma, lamb shawerma, dolmas, falafels, tahini sauce, garlic sauce, and pickled turnips. Ten in all, the small bowls take over the table. It is a feast for the eyes before even picking up a fork.
If you don't know where to start, turn to the accompanying pita bread. Fresh from the oven, the bread is inflated like a balloon, its thin sides filled with hot air. To call the bread fresh would be an understatement: it is cooked to order. Thin rounds of dough sit ready to be flattened and baked in a 650 degree oven just moments before they are brought to the table. It takes just 40 seconds for the bread to bake, ballooning up as the hot air creates a pocket in the pita. Pulling the bread apart, it is warm, fresh, and elemental; perfect for accompanying the meza. We sample haphazardly, each dish vying for our attention before the last is fully swallowed.
Baba Ganouj, an eggplant puree, originated in Lebanon, and Aladdin's dish is a refreshing and authentic rendition. The texture and flavors are ethereal, the dip a velvety emulsion. The flavors of eggplant, lemon, and sesame tahini blend into one, along with a tinge of garlic and a hint of peppery spice. No imitation comes close to being as sublime as this.
Kebah is another authentic Lebanese dish, and a delight for meat-lovers. Lean ground beef is blended with the wheat to achieve a dough-like consistency, then formed into a shell, which is stuffed with more meat—a mixture of ground beef, pine nuts, onions, and a seven-spice blend. The entire stuffed shell is then deep fried and served warm. It is classic comfort food, the shell similar to meatloaf and the filling both savory and moist.
Our bites quicken, wanting to sample everything. The shawermas, having been marinated for 24-hours in a creamy spice blend, are tender and bursting with flavor—the chicken is spicy while the lamb is almost floral and sweet. The falafel’s crisp shell breaks to reveal a hearty mixture of chick peas and herbs. House-made dolmas are vinegary and sweet, one of many dishes we quickly finish, wishing for more.
In between substantial bites we turn to their accompaniments. The hommos is light and airy, vibrant with lemon and garlic. The tahini sauce begs to be drizzled atop every bite. The tabouleh—a salad of parsley, tomato, and lemon juice—is a refreshing palate cleanser, as are the piquant pickled turnips, which are stained a bright fuchsia color. Perhaps the most unique condiment is the garlic sauce, an emulsion of garlic, lemon, and oil that results in an amazing flavor explosion—somehow lending the taste of garlic without the lingering heaviness. It makes everything—the shwerma, the falafel, the kebah—taste vibrant and fresh.
We are brought glasses of a Prieuré Ksara 2004, from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, from a winery founded by Jesuit monks in 1857. The wine, a blend of Cinsault, Carignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, is intriguing and versatile; it is ideal alongside these diverse flavors.
It's tough to turn away from the Meza platter, but we eventually pay attention to the rest of the menu, which offers an equally enticing array of options. From the appetizer section we sample Boraks, fresh doughy pastries filled with meat, cheese, or spinach. The palm-sized pastries are served with a yougurt sauce and an astonishing spicy green sauce—the blend of cilantro, parsley, onion, green pepper, and chives packs a vibrant kick. The Lamb Borak is a favorite—ground lamb and onions mixed with pomegranate sauce—but the Vegetarian Borak is a close second, with spinach, walnuts, tomatoes, and a blend of spices.
The Aladdin Mediterranean salad, like many dishes on the menu, is available as a full or half-sized portion. The mixture of romaine, radish, cucumber and feta is light and refreshing, doused a zesty lemon dressing that demonstrates its freshness in every bite. Thin strips of sweet chicken top the dish, along with miniature pita pillows, a creative alternative to croutons.
The Wood-Fired Pizza section of the menu draws a western Mediterranean influence, with a selection of pies that seem half Italian and half Lebanese. The Aladdin Pizza features a blend of three cheeses and a pesto-like herb sauce. The dough is fresh and soft and the feta cheese lends a delicious salty tang. The Chicken Shawerma Pizza is entirely unique, a traditional mozzarella and tomato pie topped with spicy chicken schawerma. The surprisingly wide range of pizzas are all a substantial 12,” making them an inexpensive dinner option.
Yet, with so many authentic Lebanese dishes, it seems foolish to stick with pizza. Among the entrees, the Shish Kabob Mix is a popular favorite, featuring three kebabs—Chicken Tika, Koufta, and Lamb Tikka—accompanied by basmati rice, garlic sauce, and hommos. All three kabobs can be ordered as individual entrées, but who can resist variety? The chicken is an instant favorite—the orange-stained meat shows just a hint of grill marks, but for being cooked over dry heat the meat is shockingly moist. The flesh is incomparable—juicy and tender with a subtle blend of smokiness and spiciness.
We turn to the Lamb Tika and the Kofta Kabob, both of which are equally tender and moist. The kofta is a long roll of ground lamb and beef mixed with fresh herbs. It is creamy, savory, and astoundingly delicious. The lamb kabob features tender pieces of meat interspersed with green pepper and onions. We can taste the meat’s quality in each flavorful bite. The accompanying basmati rice is tender and fluffy, the individual grains cooked to pillowy perfection. Somehow the dish as a whole seems so elemental, so good. There is something to be said for simplicity.
At the end of our meal, we look over the table, satisfied by the array of flavors and textures and colors that we have just enjoyed. Before the dishes are cleared, I have a brief moment when I feel as if we are dining in a home, and I should offer to help clear the dishes. The flavors still dancing over my tongue, I come to my senses, and realize we have just had one of the more enjoyable restaurant experiences in a long time.