Mediterranean cuisine seems to be the latest craze. Just think how hummus has taken hold here, along with kebabs, falafel, tabouleh … all now readily available. For at least two of us, this kind of food is our favorite, and Ali Baba’s in Rockford, Illinois, satisfies that craving.
It looks like any other fast-food place on the inside: there are booths and tables in a clean, modern dining room. But the menu is another story. There is nothing mass-produced about the dishes coming out of the kitchen. Everything is fresh and made to order. I was excited to give it a try.
First, I ordered a Turkish coffee ($1.99) served in a demitasse cup. The initial sips were wonderful, rich and strong. I was tempted to get some cookies or baklava packaged for sale on the counter. I refrained but found out later that Nikki and Helene each tried the mini ma’amoul ($5.95/box), little date-stuffed butter cookies, and said they would pair well with coffee.
For my meal, I started with hummus ($6.95). It was super smooth and light. It is interesting how varied hummus can be. It was a large helping with enough pita bread that it would make a good dish to share.
My main course was the kafta kebab platter ($8.95) with salad. The kafta was served with plenty of rice and came with a small salad. Kafta is ground beef with onion, parsley and spices, like a meatball but rolled into a log shape and grilled. Whatever they do with their rice, I want that recipe! I know it has parsley and onions and probably turmeric to give it a beautiful yellow color. The Greek salad had a nice variety of healthy greens and a light, lemony dressing. There were cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and flavorful kalamata olives.
A favorite of Helene’s, grape leaves ($5.95), were offered stuffed with rice or meat and vegetables—Helene opted for the rice. These finger-shaped leaves were stuffed with what looked to be brown rice. There was not a lot of flavor, but the accompanying tzatziki sauce took over that role. The fragrant lentil soup ($3.95) tasted earthy and peppery and was welcomed on the crisp, cold day. The pureed soup was salty with a nice cumin flavor that made for a spicy soup.
Helene chose the gyro platter ($14.95 for the large), which came on a plate, not in a pita. Slices of lamb meat covered a bed of yellow rice that was intertwined with minced parsley and slightly soft, thinly sliced pickled red onions. It was a great combination. The meat had a nice flavor to it, the onions had a hint of sweetness to their tang and the rice was just lovely. The whole plate was sprinkled with sumac, a spice often used in place of lemon juice. Tzatziki sauce came on the side. There were bits of crisp cucumber and onion, and a couple of clumps of garlic that really took over the flavor.
Jennifer was especially hungry, and the extensive menu made choosing a tough decision—she wanted it all! In the end, she opted for the beef shawarma ($8.95) and a Greek salad. If you are unfamiliar with shawarma, it is seasoned meat cooked on a vertical spit. As the spit rotates, the meat is slow roasted which creates a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Her meal consisted of tender rice combined with thin, soft beef strips; sliced red onion; and yellow onion. The spices used were very apparent and she adored the prominent cinnamon flavor. The Greek salad was equally as good.
Nikki ordered the mixed grill platter ($17.95), which consisted of a lamb kebab, chicken kebab and kafta kebab. She hesitated to get a dish with chicken because so often it can be dry and bland, but the grilled chicken on her plate was so juicy and flavorful. The lamb was also perfectly cooked and had some color when she cut into it. Garlic sauce came with the mixed grill, and it was delicious, especially with the lamb. She also ordered yogurt milk ($1.95), a salty, tangy drink that was a great accompaniment to all the kebabs.
If you have some room left after you eat, treat your sweet tooth and try something off their new rock melt menu. The smell of crepes and waffles filled the air as I was leaving and I saw some delectable creations being plated. The triple chocolate crepe ($9.95) looked especially tempting.