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Jul 8, 2012 12:20 AM

Cafe Beirut: Son of Sam(i) Delivers On Delicious Vegetarian in JP

We live just north of the city and we don’t get to JP very often, except for regular Arnold Arboretum visits. It’s actually been many many years since we drove the length of Centre St. So yesterday we did a JP recon and pulled a hatrick- Tapas Dinner at Tres Gatos followed by Bday treats at JPLicks, with takeout from Cafe Beirut for sustenance during a tiring Sunday in the gardens.

Wow, JP, you are really lookin’ good! Amazing how 20, heck, 40, years can change a place. No more the dumpy ghetto; people are taking care of their houses, fresh paint and plantings abound. And so many inviting restnts and storefronts. Also, NOW I know where(other than Somerville) the hippies moved. The counterculture thrives in JP and we felt right at home, people watching over dinner and our ice cream.

After returning and writing up our meal at Tres Gatos, I just had to sneak some tastes of our takeout (before it got cold and hard, right?) When I had originally called CB to verify their hours, the owner offered that they had “ the best baba ghanoosh anywhere”. Well. i have had alot of baba ghanoosh in my life (I love eggplant), but CB's has them all beat. I have no idea why, but it does.(Listen up, you Sevan, Arax, Eastern Lamejun, Sabra baba fans!) Smoky, creamy, clean flavors with just the right balance of tahini, lemon, garlic and olive oil. A small size baba is just not enough.(And boy does it make a great rollup with their sliced roasted eggplant.) I was also impressed with their Pumpkin Kibby in pita. The pumpkin came through in the nutty bulghur, and while the raisins made it a bit sweet for my taste, when slathered w/ tahini sauce and tomatoes, all was very right with the world. The ‘fried okra’ (me- “deep fried?”, him- “yes”) turned out to be an okra salad with tomatoes, onions....perfect refreshing summer salad. Moujadara, a blend of rice, lentils +, topped w/ deep fried shallots- will make a nice side for a grilled entree. Their Fool Moudammas was very different from that at Azima Grill (AG is Egyptian, not Lebanese) and it looked and tasted a little like refried beans but w/o cumin. Their pita bread is thin, which I like because these roll ups always end up giving you much more bread than main filling.) Their tahini sauce is tasty but , like many others,very watered down, and i would prefer it much thicker. I would warn you to stay away from the pure white garlic sauce as it has that harsh acrid flavor that results from garlic being chopped or pureed in a food processor. While the shawarma was raved on another thread, both of the shawarma I previewed ( chicken, and beef w/lamb) were exceedingly dry, like sawdust, so dry that I doubt that reheating will get them any moister, but I will try that. We shall see. Maybe they are moister earlier in the day.....(we were there at 8pm)

Fyi, the big guy out front is ‘Big Sami’s’ son.( When I asked if the recipes were the same as Sami’s

[ a regular stop for us 25 yrs ago] there was a very firm ‘No’ in response.) From this first visit, I was really delighted with some of the non-meat options, and the baba alone is worth the drive to get there, so we will at the very least get a Large next time!

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  1. Thanks for a great review.

    While the other review raved about their shawarma, it did prefer Esperia's pork gyro instead. The dry meat might very well be the result of being heated on a spit for too long, as you suspected.

    Never have baba ghanoosh before and looked it up.

    "The arabic term means "father of coquetry", which has been interpreted to suggest that it was invented by a member of a harem, although "ghansouh" may be a personal name."

    I then looked up the meaning of coquetry.

    "An affectation of amorous tenderness, especially of a woman directed towards a man."

    Does your fondness of baba ghanoosh have anything to do with its origin or meaning?

    3 Replies
    1. re: eatntell

      Nope, entirely flavor/texture based baba passion(but such an interesting story,thx!)

      It actually was my intro to Middle Eastern food. In 1968/69 I was a senior in high school on Oahu and I worked in the kitchen at The Tao, a hippy coffehouse/cafe(complete w/ color organ, and the bathroom walls were papered with pages from the Tao [Te Ching.]) The chef was from Istanbul and he taught me how to make it. Little did I know that a lifetime food career would follow....!

      1. re: opinionatedchef

        Many traditional dishes passed down through centuries have fascinating stories behind them. Consuming the food delights my palate, while learning about their culture expands my mind.

        BTW, did you notice that wikipedia link describes how baba ghanoosh differs country from country?

        1. re: eatntell

          there is also a wonderful turkish dish called "ladies thighs" and then there is the eggplant dish that made someone famous faint...

    2. Just to finish this, we ate the meat roll ups today and the meat in the roll ups was as dry as could be, reheated or not. The lamb kabob, in spite of the fact that i specifically asked for it to not be well done, was tough and well done. As I ate it (slathering it in tahini sauce did nothing to improve the meat) I realized that it was just like the lamb kabob sandwiches from the old Sami's in the 'trolley car'. I'll never know if they actually were better when we first started having them, but unfortunately, their toughness and well doneness lost us after awhile. So, again, I would return to Beirut Cafe but only for the non-meat things.

      1. Just to be clear, do you mean Samia's? Or Sami's?

        Samia ran a beloved place with her husband for many years. He died - not long after catering a party for us. He always looked like he had a heart condition. Her daughter then helped out sometimes, mostly late in the afternoon, but really worked at the bank across the street - forget the bank name and don't remember if she's still at that branch. Then Samia hired a helper but she never seemed all that comfortable with that and she complained about being lonely. So she retired. I never heard about a son in all those years.

        He told me how they got married. Those are the conversations you wish you could remember. All I have is shards of conversations about wanting a girl from a village, Lebanese politics, etc.

        Sami's food was never anywhere near as good as Samia's.

        2 Replies
        1. re: lergnom

          It is Sami's the food truck on Longwood near HMS and I agree (Samia's was much better). I avoided the place until my Algerian barber recommended it. Sorry OC that your schwarmas were dry. I don;t recall that as a problem. The son of Sami is not the chef. It's the other guy.

          1. re: gourmaniac

            yep, sami's 'food truck.'oh, yes, that was really clear to me that the son of sami is the front guy, not the chef! he had to ask the chef questions about my questions (not a good sign.)

        2. Curious whether you have had baba from the Family Restaurant in Brookline Village for comparison? Great stuff (although I can't say I'm crazy about the bread they serve it with).

          1 Reply
          1. re: drb

            yes i have. that place is o.k. but my prob w/ it is the same with the afghani place in Allston, the Irani place in Arlington, and most Portuguese restnts here>> the very limited palate and pantry represented on the menu >>meaning,,,,,everything has the same small pantry of igredients and mostly 'tastes the same.'
            At FR it's tomato, onion, eggplant,olive oil, tomato, onion, eggplant, olive oil, parsley, yoghurt, lamb, lamb and lamb, beef. So many people love Family R and i enjoyed my dinner there, but I guess I get bored easily.