Some serious Syrian
A world of flavors in downtown Chico
Chico, CA 95928
Chico’s gourmet block, the one short strip of Broadway between First and Second streets, has no fewer then 11 places to eat. The newest, and one of the best, is Ali Baba Mediterranean Restaurant (if you sampled it during its first months of operation you know it as —it took a while for the sign to arrive). This unpretentious and friendly Middle Eastern eatery fills the deep ethnic hole left by the departure of Petra (in the same space). I liked Petra. Ali Baba is even better.
The physical plan is classic mom-and-pop (or in this case brother-and-brother) minimalism. A few simple Formica-type tables in a bright, clean space with an open view of the bustling kitchen, and a window on Broadway from which you can watch the Chico street scene pass by.
Ali Baba embraces the In-N-Out principle: Do a few things and do them perfectly: four appetizers, one wrap (falafel), one sandwich and one plate, each with three different meat choices—ground beef, chicken chunks, ground chicken—two desserts. Other than occasional specials, that’s about it. Pricing is equally clear-headed: the sandwiches and wrap are $7; the plates are $7-$9. All beautifully simple. And seriously cheap. Meat, rice, salad and hummus for less than $10? Come on. That’s Mexican-truck burrito territory.
Every dish on the menu is my idea of perfect food, drawing from hummus, falafel, subtly spiced chicken or beef, garlic sauce, tahini, rice—the seven building blocks of life—and a simple noniceberg/tomato/cucumber salad that’s absolutely worth eating.
Don’t pooh-pooh the ground chicken kebab. This isn’t an acultural abomination like ground-beef tacos. It’s a true Syrian dish, and it’s very good. There are two sauces, garlic and tahini. They’re both good, and they’re happy to comp you both of them if you ask, but don’t miss the garlic sauce, which is to die for. It tastes so good you’ll assume it’s bad for you, but it isn’t. Everything at Ali Baba is lean and clean, right down to the low-fat milk in the pudding. Spicing is sprightly but never aggressive, and the food isn’t at all “hot”—Middle Eastern food doesn’t do “hot”—although the owners, in their desire to please, have heat available for those who need it. For me, the plates trump the sandwiches because of the hummus, which is dreamy. They don’t come with pita, but co-owner Luke Zineddin said they’d be happy to throw a little pita on the plate for free if you ask. Typical.
There are two desserts, baklava and a light, sweet pudding called mahalabia, which is sublime. Eat this if you eat nothing else here—a perfect dessert break from ice cream.
How much ethnicity do you get for your buck? At first blush, none. The eating area is generic, and the cashier/waitress is invariably a sweet, pleasant, but Anglo girl. But there’s a rich Syrian presence behind the counter, and all you have to do to experience it is ask to talk to the boss. Ali Baba is run by two brothers, Luke and Allen Zineddin, who want to “put a Syrian stamp” on everything they serve, as Luke put it. They’re happy to let you sample anything they make—just ask; you pay only if you like it. When I was curious about the mahalabia, Luke handed me one and wouldn’t accept payment. They make everything themselves, save the shawarma (the cone on a spit), and they’re passionate about quality—they drive to Sacramento to get their meat, they grind their own spices, they marinate the meat (for four days).
Two minor disappointments: 1. They have lamb only on certain days. 2. They can’t give you water. “We don’t have cups” is the explanation. So bring your Klean Kanteen if you don’t want to add to the landfill problem.