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When talking politics in polite company, it's sometimes best to steer clear of the Middle East, which can be confusing and infuriating no matter where you stand. But there's no danger in bringing up the region's food, since pretty much everyone can agree on hummus.
Of course, we had to go and make things slightly more contentious by anointing the best Seattle restaurants specializing in grilled meats, pita and other popular dishes. Here, our picks for the top Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, with the finalists arbitrarily ordered and the names followed by blurbs compiled by Erin Thompson. Let the debate begin.
Israeli chef George Rached (who is not the famed pro wrestler, but really does call himself "Gorgeous George") spends his days and nights in the kitchen of his shoebox restaurant, grilling up peppery lamb shawarma and pureeing hummus into the texture of thick custard. What he comes up with is the best hummus you'll find anywhere in the city, but this doesn't leave him too fatigued to occasionally serenade one of his regulars or walk the dining room to check in on his many guests. Dinner is priced upscale, but worth it, and there are some deals at lunch.
9. Café Munir
Tucked away in a far corner north of Ballard, serving a cuisine that's not too common in Seattle, it's a hard road for Cafe Munir. But even those who can't find Lebanon on a map will find beauty in its simple Mediterranean cuisine. From hummus (in three varieties) to koshary, Cafe Munir stays true to its roots while establishing itself as an excellent neighborhood restaurant. The early seating flows noisily with family dining, yet in the late evening the atmosphere grows quietly romantic under the intricately beautiful light fixtures.
Meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie is called by any number of names: Doner kebab, gyros, Tarna if you're in Armenia. But on The Ave, it's shawarma at Shawarma King. The small but lavishly decorated dining room--all done up in lipstick red, with an open kitchen--draws crowds for its vibrantly seasoned sandwiches, salads, hummus, and some of the best falafel in the city. Beef, lamb and chicken shawarma are also served. Ask for fries in your sammie for some salty crispness. The hookah in the front window is just for show.
Enter a room that resembles a tent, recline on regal pillows, and watch course after luscious course emerge from the hidden kitchen. Couscous, eaten with the hands, is the humble star of Moroccan cuisine; here you can get it topped with chicken, lamb, or vegetables. The b'steeya royale is a must: A buttery pastry (not unlike phyllo) is wrapped around delicately spiced chicken and toasted almonds. The plate is ringed with powdered sugar, begging the question: sweet or savory?
Bistro Turkuaz is a long, yellow breadbox ending in a blood-red wall, behind which is a magical kitchen that produces some of the most nuanced Turkish cuisine in town. At the top of Union Street on 34th Avenue in Madrona, this family-run spot is quietly fantastic. Hummus and pita and grape leaves might all be considered casual Mediterranean staples, but not here. The pace is slow, the mood mellow, and the dishes are very thoughtfully prepared. A meze platter is decked out with hummus and baba ghanouj, triangles of pita, and tightly rolled grape leaves, with all the flavors very nicely balanced. Make sure to try the acuka, a blend of red peppers and walnuts, rich with garlic and lemon. There are kebabs among the entrées, but the best dishes are the appetizers. And afterward, dessert has to be a piece of baklava, stuffed with pistachios and house-made chocolate.
This charming cafe serves a mash-up of Mediterranean mainstays but also mixes it up a bit by offering naan instead of the ubiquitous pita with its selection of spreads. Entrees are a selection of meats on a stick, Lebanese stews (chicken with tomatoes and potatoes; a veggie option laden with broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots), and pasta dishes. Dinner prices run between $10 and $18, with the cost of a mid-day meal dropping by about half.
There are lots of reasons to go to Petra Mediterranean Bistro, not least among them the stunning pictures of Jordan's ancient city, for which this elegant Belltown establishment is named. But, really, you need no other reason than the hummus--in particular the "mosabaha" hummus (there are three kinds). For one thing, this dish is so generously portioned that it can serve as a meal in itself. You get not only an overflowing plate of hummus but a pile of warm pita, in marked contrast to a lot of other joints that go skimpy on the bread, leaving you with either a spoon or your fingers to scoop up the rest. More important, this hummus is a decadent treat--for the most part as smooth as cream, but with whole chickpeas adding texture. Parsley lends a note of bright flavor. The pièce de résistance, though, is the fried pine nuts. As the Italians learned long ago, pine nuts make anything taste good. Frying them: even better.
If you order the lamb kebabs, you'll get a good idea of how to fall in love with a region. The skewered lamb pieces could have come straight from the kitchen of a stocky Turkish grandmother. Spiked with onion, garlic, lemon, cinnamon, and who knows what else, the lamb is tender, savory, and effusing flavor. Ephesus also prepares chicken, beef, and various seafood kebabs.
2. Cafe Paloma
This intimate little nook is maybe the size of a big garage, and that's counting the tiny patio, a perfectly charming place to sit on a sunny day. Even though the atmosphere is casual, everything about Café Paloma exudes understated class without succumbing to the exasperating pretension that plagues so many of downtown's pricier establishments. More important, Paloma is one of those rare places where you can open the menu, close your eyes, point at something, and order it with confidence. Every single item is a study in the kind of balanced flavors that can only be consistently attained with careful attention. The panini sandwiches contain perfectly proportioned layers of filling; it's just the right amount not to be overwhelmed by the thick foccacia, and it's hard not to resist the urge to lick the last bits of hummus and red-pepper dip from the meze platter.
1. Mawadda Cafe
Mawadda customers might think they're choosing what to eat when they decide between, say, falafel and shawarma, but the dishes are just details: They all end up eating garlic. Sweet, stinky garlic is everywhere at Mawadda, and it's pretty fantastic, whether in a grilled meat's marinade or a sauce that's a creamy magnet for French fries. Food here is cooked to order, giving patrons plenty of time to enjoy the counter-service restaurant's friendly neighborhood atmosphere.