Sacramento, CA 95816
Since Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon closed last year, the local Middle Eastern options have seemed ho-hum. While some fast-casual spots serve excellent food, few restaurants offer a communal atmosphere as appealing as Maalouf’s.
Enter Kasbah, the hookah lounge and bar next door to Tapa the World, which has suddenly reemerged as an oasis of great flavors and interesting ambiance. After 10 years as employees, Tanya Azar and Debbie Chang officially took over in June with a renewed focus on food.
Azar also serves as executive chef, bringing experience from her family’s restaurant in Bethlehem. While still skewing toward small plates, she’s added a sense of contemporary freshness often missing from Middle Eastern restaurants.
A good example is the crispy, spicy chickpeas ($3) served during happy hour, which is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Nuggets of puckery preserved lemon mingle with the chickpeas, which are lightly battered and fried, accompanied by fresh spinach and a dusting of tart ground sumac. It’s simple but unique.
Harissa chili chicken wings ($9) are another great happy hour deal at $4—and the gooey, fiery sauce makes them ideal with drinks. A dip in garlic aioli relieves the palate a bit.
Our server recommended the Chi Chi al Fuego ($10.50), bearing the best recipe title ever. It arrives dramatically, the Spanish cheese sizzling on a hot plate flamed with brandy and extinguished with lemon juice. Smear the gooey cheese and sweet membrillo paste onto pita and don’t forget some of the crunchy, broiled exterior.
While every Middle Eastern restaurant serves hummus, the Kasbah version ($3) has a particularly good, fruity olive oil pooled in the center as well as that lemony sumac sprinkled around. We needed extra pita to eat it all, but at only 50 cents, it’s worth it to scoop up every last creamy bit.
It may seem a bit unusual to serve alcohol with these dishes, but Kasbah is still a bar—and a very good one at that. We loved the floral, citrusy sangria (a steal at $4), while the habibi ($9) muddles rum aged in whiskey barrels with orange. Turkish and Lebanese wines and a wide selection of araks are fun and appropriate partners for the food.
Kasbah also hits the mark with atmosphere, providing belly dancing shows on Thursdays and an array of shisha flavors for the hookahs outside. Pillow-topped banquettes, tapestries and small brass tables define the interior. A soundtrack of Pan-Mediterranean music quietly serves as background encouragement to join the party.
Azar offers flavor-packed large plates, too. Housemade falafel patties on the side of the balanced fattoush salad ($10) reveal an herb-flecked, moist interior that begs for a dunk in the creamy lebne. Kasbah also prepares one of the richest versions I’ve ever had of harira ($6.50), a traditional vegan soup. Long-cooked tomatoes and lentils benefit from crunchy, fried sweet onions on top.
Similarly, the unusual kefta tagine ($14.50) reminds you of Italian comfort food. Tender lamb and beef meatballs and a complex tomato-cilantro stew make you feel like there’s a Moroccan mother behind the stove.
The best entree I had, though, was the lamb kebobs ($17.50), with two hefty lamb-and-onion skewers seasoned with ras al hanout and coated with pomegranate honey. They’re lightly charred and the heady lamb combines well with garlicky sauteed spinach and coriander-flecked sweet potatoes.
Thoughtful desserts include walnut baklava ($4), a chunkier and less sticky version than usual, and banana beignets ($7), battered bananas served with unexciting vanilla ice cream but a knockout butterscotch sauce.
Sometimes great things come from unexpected places. Kasbah’s new owners have really succeeded in remaking a somewhat forgotten bar into a dining destination.