121 Allyn St., Hartford, (860) 278-0202, aladdinhalal.com
668 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, (860) 233-8168, tangierswh.com
The Hartford area has a surplus of restaurant options. You can find really good Italian (naturally), Jamaican, Peruvian, Brazilian, Indian and Korean food around here if you know where to look. Still, certain cuisine types somehow slip through the cracks. Go hunting for excellent Middle Eastern food, and you might be faced with more of a challenge. But for more than a gyro or falafel, you may need to search a little harder. Or not.
If you're a regular of the Hartford bar scene, perhaps you've stumbled out of the Pour House on Allyn Street at 1 a.m, searching for something satisfying and salty to eat. You may have found yourself ordering a slice at Aladdin — which serves pizza into the early morning hours. What you may not have had the opportunity to sample the Middle Eastern fare, made with an Egyptian touch, that they specialize in.
Aladdin is a very good Middle Eastern restaurant masquerading as a pizza parlor or a deli. You can get garlic bread, mozzarella sticks, and pasta dinners. But look closer at the menu and you'll also find moujadarah, a dish of lentils served with heaps of fried onions, which turns the earthy legume into a showpiece. There's also kebeh, a kind of croquette or fritter made from ground beef.
Aladdin makes one of the best lamb kebabs in town, with cubes of grilled meat drizzled in a yogurt and tahini sauce and folded together with lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Equally excellent are the pizza-like lahm bi Ajeen. I'm going to guess that Aladdin is the only place in the area that you can find these. You might see them called sfeeha or Syrian pizzas, in some places. They're excellent, packed with the flavor of garlic and lamb and parsley, without any of the heaviness one associates with cheese-loaded pizza. The lahm bi Ajeen alone are worth taking a stroll to Aladdin to sample. You'll find hummos and falafel and shawarmas there as well. It's worth noting that Aladdin is halal, meaning the food there is made according Islamic law. So you won't find any swine in the house. No booze either.
Another right-under-your-nose treasure of Middle Eastern eating is Tangiers International on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford, just over the city line. Tangiers is a venerable and much-loved family establishment whose little lunch counter has served generations of hungry patrons. If Aladdin sneaks its Middle Eastern fare in amongst the more familiar Italian offerings, Tangiers is much more minimalist and straight forward. You can pretty much get only a few options there, falafel and gyros being the main offerings, with lots of sides showcasing vegetables and smooth dips made with garbanzo beans or roasted eggplant. I'd say that Tangiers makes the best falafel in the area. Each fried little ball has a golden and crispy outer shell, but a nicely moist interior. In less experienced hands you'll find falafel that is either fried solid, like a rock, or else is made into balls that are too big, leaving gloppy mush inside. The gyros are equally expert, with grilled onions and a zingy harissa-like hot sauce available on request.
Tangiers also has an impressive shelf of Middle Eastern sweets, lots of baklava and treats made with ground nuts, honey or sweetened sesame seeds. And the soda coolers are filled with unusual carbonated drinks from other parts of the world, some made with sour cherry syrup or peach juice. There are several other reasons to visit Tangiers though, one is certainly the staff there. The restaurant is run by a band of brothers. These young men learned their craft from their father, who ran the place until he passed away. The sons are charming and handsome — they all sport dress shirts even when they're frying up strips of meat on the grill. They preside over the place with an admirable good nature.
The other point of interest at Tangiers is the remarkable selection of the market. Hard-to-find Middle Eastern spices (zaatar, sumac, mahlab), unusual sausages (sujuk), an astounding variety of olive oils, cheeses, sardines, canned and pickled vegetables, dates, coffees and legumes are loaded onto the shelves there.
You may even decide to master Middle Eastern cooking in your own kitchen. Who knows, maybe you can open up a restaurant.