You may have noticed my co-editor picking up the slack these past few days while I was in Pittsburgh to present my research at an art historians conference. Last week was hell. I felt like a college student all over again with the lack of sleep, the spoon and jar of Nutella next to my laptop, and the emotional aftermath where I had Sally-Field-in-Steel-Magnolias-style meltdowns over silly things like low toner. I survived to tell the tale and received lots of positive feedback from my colleagues. Oh, and I ate some really fantastic Middle Eastern food.
I was a little skeptical when I heard that our hosts at the University had organized dinner at a place called Ali Baba, especially given that it was within walking distance of the Pitt campus. My experience is that Middle Eastern food near a college campus means one thing: over-fried falafel drowned in orange colored sauce. (Think Dojo near NYU or the wretched Middle East in Cambridge. If you have good memories of either, remember that you were probably drunk when you last ate there.)
Ali Baba turned out to be something special and sincere. There was no bad belly dancing music playing, no purple walls, or decorative hookah bongs. The decor was simple, and it looked as though there was a mother/daughter team working the cash register. The menu was large and gave a small history of the restaurant started by two brothers from Syria with a long reputation for serving the best Middle Eastern food in Pittsburgh.
I ordered a koozi: phyllo dough stuffed with ground lamb, rice, raisins, and carrots. The lamb was perfectly seasoned with a light, fragrant blend of spices that you can only achieve by marinating and prepping way ahead of time. The guest next to me ordered the lamb shanks, which were two beautifully roasted and generously sized shanks, all golden brown and glazed and falling off the bone. I had to muster every ounce of professionalism in my body to keep from reaching across her plate with my fork. The babaghanoush reminded me just how intense the smoky eggplant flavor should be. No more tubs of Sabra for me. Good babaghanoush is next on my list of foods to perfect at home.
P.S. On Casey’s advice, I used my one hour of non-work related time to have a sandwich at Primanti Brothers. I’m going to let the local gal write about it, but thought it was important to note that I did get to experience the Pittsburgh custom of eating french fries inside your sandwich.