Food :: Middle East in Northeast

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March 29, 2010 // UPDATED 8:55 am - March 29, 2010
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Hark back to 1972: There was Murray’s. There was Charlie’s. There was Jax. But when it came to ethnic flavors, the choices were scant and far from daring: The Nankin, the Casa Coronado, Mama D’s.

Oh, right! There was Emily’s! Back in 1972, Emily Awaijane opened her iconic Lebanese Deli in an itty-bitty, no-frills storefront deep in the heart of Nordeast. Even though she died seven years ago, Emily’s hasn’t missed a beat, thanks to a son, two daughters and grandkids spotted waiting tables, plus the blessings of her husband, who still drifts in from time to time. It draws a mix-and-match of Polish elders, stylin’ hipsters and, as we eavesdropped, a lively table of Lebanese neighbors planning a visit to the homeland over plates of kibbe and kebab.

No muzak to mar the conversations. No décor to speak of, unless you count the ancient ceiling fan and antique radiator beneath the barren window, the faux-wood paneling hung with photos and flag and a deli case spared a designer’s touch. It’s exactly that comforting lack of pretension that draws folks back and back.

That, and the menu. Still honoring the traditional recipes brought with the doyenne from the Middle East, it favors the Top Hits of the region, leading off with creamy dips. Hummus and baba ghanouj, turned suave with sesame paste, are livened with a major overload of garlic (and that’s a good thing). Spoon them onto sturdy pitas, more substantial and floury than some renditions, or stick with the ultra-creamy lubin, aka homemade yogurt — less tart than the Greek version and light years from the wimpy pretenders on a supermarket’s shelves.

The same thick, substantial (but kind of boring) pita bundles Emily’s spinach pie. Its leafy filling, heavy with chopped onion and a wake-up zing of lemon juice, is fashioned sans the eggs and feta you’ll find in the Greek version: more dough than filling, too.

Never mind: the sassy tabouli to the rescue! It’s cornered the parsley crop, along with bright bits of onion and tomato, a splash of lemon and sprinkles of cracked wheat. The crunchy wheat binds the kibbe, too: dry and blah when baked, but silky-smooth when the lean ground beef arrives raw, along with a cruet of olive oil to play with.

Rice, often mixed with bits of braised lamb, is the filling of choice for grape leaves; add a little lemon and garlic and it’s sneaked into the long, slim cabbage rolls; stir in a little tomato paste and there it goes, into the zucchini. It also forms a tasty bed for the kebabs — our choice, tender chicken nuggets basted with garlic butter and served with a dab of yogurt. The lamb shish at $15 is the most pricey item on budget-friendly menu.

Even desserts are practically given away. Two bucks buys you the crema custard or walnutty baklava. No booze, no problem: a midget cup of Turkish coffee — so thick and potent it almost requires a knife and fork — is all the buzz you’ll need.

641 University Ave. NE