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Home Cooking From Halfway Around the World

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The 4600 to 4900 blocks of North Kedzie--one of most wonderful food stretches in the city--suffered a terrible loss late last year with the sudden death of Azzam Tbakhi and the closing of his superlative restaurant, the Shawerma King. Unlike the outrageously popular Noon-O-Kabab, many of the Middle Eastern restaurants, groceries, and bakeries on this strip do most of their business with Middle Eastern customers and lucky neighbors of other extractions. The Shawerma King never did a booming business, despite doing a few simple things very well--basically chicken and beef shawirma sandwiches. But what made Tbakhi's tiny storefront such a special place was his dignified but friendly manner and the care with which he toasted individual disks of pita before shaving delicately seasoned meat onto them and dusting them with sumac. Like the cooks at Salam across the street, who scoop your crispy falafel from bubbling oil, or the bakers at Al-Khaymeih, who pull hot zatar bread from the oven in full view, Tbakhi and his sandwiches defied the affront of recently arrived ethnic cleansers like McDonald's, Starbucks, and Subway.

Two of my favorite defenders on the Albany Park barricades are Maysoun and Sami Rabie. Palestinians who arrived via Jordan 15 years ago, they've run the terrific halal butcher shop City Noor Meat for the past six. Last spring they saw an opportunity to integrate their access to fresh meat, hand slaughtered as the Prophet directs, and Maysoun's homey cooking, and took over George's, the kebab place three doors down.

Maysoun learned to cook from her mother and mother-in-law, and her style's distinct from that of the other chefs on Kedzie. That's because most of them are men, she says. "It's like back home. If someone invites you for a meal, probably it's an old woman cooking. Old women cook for a long time, and they know how. The men don't know better than the women."

City Noor Kabab's menu includes typical Middle Eastern spreads and salads--hummus, baba ghanoush, fattoush, and tabbouleh--and a small variety of Pakistani and Indian plates, an offering to the cabbies in this polyglot neighborhood. There are even halal hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks for the observant toddler. That's all fine, but every day Maysoun also prepares two specials from a standard list of 19 that exhibit her formidable skills. My favorite, mansaf, is a layer of pita drenched with a reconstituted cow-and-goat-milk yogurt, under a pile of rice sprinkled with almonds and crowned with a hunk of fatty braised lamb on the bone. It's served with a bowl of the warm yogurt sauce, or nage, to spoon on top. The whole heaping thing arrives preceded by a gust of cardamom, an aromatic mound of love so luxurious I want to curl up and sleep on it.

Molukhia follows a similar template: a large piece of tender meat rests on a turmeric-flecked pile of rice, accompanied by a bowl of green stew made from the leaf that gives the dish its name. Also known as Jew's mallow, it has thickening properties similar to those of okra; the stew's meant to be spooned over the rice. Most of the specials are generous: hearty plates of stuffed cabbages and grape leaves, meaty white bean or okra stews, piles of rice with nuts and meats. Every day City Noor offers grilled lamb, beef, and goat steaks, plus stronger stuff like hearts and kidneys.

It's worth ignoring the menu and following Maysoun's whims, which produce all sorts of things not listed there. She greets every table with a plate of torshi, or pickled vegetables, including riotous mixes of olives, hot peppers, and beets; tiny puckering lemons; or the spectacular makdous, an eggplant pickle, mixed with walnuts and paprika. She's been known to prepare something called kharshat mashih, lamb stomach cut into squares, filled with rice and nuts, then sewn together with needle and thread and boiled. I'm anxious to get some of that, but it's labor-intensive and she's been holding off until she can get fresh stomach.

Maysoun is always doing something unusual. She makes her falafel with fava beans instead of chickpeas. This gives them a nice coarse texture but also makes them harden faster, which is why she only makes them to order--you'll never see them sitting around in her kitchen. That's conventional in Egypt and Jerusalem, but it's rare here, even on Kedzie.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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