Beyond the falafel

Is there any place more pleasant than a college town in the summer? An air of idleness pervades the place, and you’re free to stroll about in the warm evenings until all hours, untroubled by gaggles of drunken youth. I grew up in a town that was at its best when the majority of the students had departed, and Davis on a sultry summer night reminds me almost eerily of home.

The best part of the whole deal is that the cheap and cheerful shops and restaurants that cater to students are still there; they’re just empty, making a low-key night on the town a simple and inexpensive pleasure. Ali Baba, tucked away a couple of blocks from downtown Davis, is just such a place: ultra-casual, all but hidden and an incredible value. On a recent Saturday night, we were alone except for a table of guys playing cards, though a few other parties wandered in as we lingered over our food. The young women who worked behind the counter sat with the cardplayers, chatting and offering strategy tips until customers came in.

Ambience is not Ali Baba’s strong suit. You order at the counter, eat off a plastic tray and bus your own tables. My main reason for lingering was to try to figure out the card game, which reminded me of my years of obsessive hearts-playing in college. I finally asked and learned that they were playing a Middle Eastern game called hokm.

A secondary reason to hang out at length was to attempt to make a dent in the enormous plates of food we were served. My husband’s soltani platter included koubideh (savory, juicy, seasoned ground beef), a choice of chicken or lamb kebabs (he had the chicken, which was pleasantly smoky and redolent of the grill), basmati rice, refreshing cucumber-yogurt sauce, a slightly watery grilled tomato and lettuce. There was also a chewy, thick and wheaty grilled pita—a huge improvement on the dry discs found in supermarkets. Although my husband does not exactly have a dainty, birdlike appetite, the platter furnished enough food for his dinner and for lunch for us both the next day. And at $11.99, it is the most expensive dish on the menu by quite a bit.

I had planned on ordering a pita sandwich, but when I got to the counter, I noticed that the special was fesenjon, an interesting-sounding stew of chicken with pomegranate sauce and walnuts. It’s a Persian specialty, and I was intrigued, so I ordered it instead.

The menu is varied and interesting, in many ways a cut above the average falafel joint. It is pan-Middle Eastern, with all the standards like hummus and baba ghanouj, plus other offerings varying in origin from Greek to Persian to unidentifiable (the gyro burrito). It also offers the distinctively American choice of burgers and fries. I had gotten a hot tip about the high quality of the fries, so we got those as well, plus an order of vegetarian dolmas.

The fries were surprisingly excellent. They were cut in thick, flat rectangles, golden and shatteringly crisp on the outside and super creamy inside. Ketchup was available, along with other standard condiments, but I liked the fries dipped in the thick, brick-red sweet-and-sour sauce of the fesenjon, which is probably very wrong indeed. Really, though, the fesenjon was better when poured over the huge mound of aromatic, light basmati rice, as the cooks intended. I loved the subtle crunch of the chopped walnuts against the silky, deeply flavored sauce.

The dolmas were yummy, too. They were served warm in a tangy sauce with a woodsy, hard-to-place flavor. It might have been sumac, but in any case, it was good. The sauce was very oily—the paper plate it came on was translucent when we finished—but it was a nice complement to the dolmas, which were melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a creamy rice-and-split-pea filling.

Next time, though, I might go for a salad, because there was a serious vegetable deficit in both of the main dishes. Nevertheless, vegetarians can venture to Ali Baba happily, because the menu affords some good choices. There’s a daily vegetarian special as well as the usual falafel and appetizers.

Drink options are limited to bottled soft drinks, a few beers and an unremarkable soda selection from the fountain. There don’t appear to be any desserts, which is a good reason to quit lingering. Another justification for leaving is the lack of a bathroom for customers. We were directed to one at the coffeehouse across the street.

Similarly, you may want to outsource your dessert plans. Ali Baba is just a block and a half from Ciocolat, an excellent Davis bakery that’s on the way to downtown. Stopping in for a truffle or a chocolate cookie is just the thing if you’re planning a postprandial saunter to browse in bookstores or to window-shop around town. It all adds up to a very pleasant summer evening. Should you be planning a similar jaunt, Davis has yet one more advantage as a college town: The university is on the quarter system, which means there is more than a month left of its sleepy summertime idyll.