As legends go in Chicago restaurant kitchens, Majed Diab resides in the deep underground, though within the Middle Eastern community he's something of a minor celebrity. In the 1980s he opened The Nile near 63rd Street and Kedzie Avenue , launched its satellite location on 87th Street and more recently helmed the charcoal pit at Bridgeview's worthy Al Bawadi Grill.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Diab moved 20 blocks south from Al Bawadi to a strip mall in Worth — a village known for its top-notch golf course, but also home to a number of Middle Eastern grocers and restaurants along Harlem Avenue. Here stands Almawal, named for the lyrical prelude popular in Arabic music. Diab debated over restaurant names when he thought: "Name it the way you want to name it, sing it the way you want to sing it. As natural as almawal."
Almawal feels no different than other area Middle Eastern restaurants — Arabic script on walls, pictures of important Islamic shrines, flowery vinyl tablecloths and a soundtrack of melismatic prayer chants. There is nothing novel or revelatory about Almawal, no major deviation from the Mediterranean cooking playbook. Not that there needs to be. Here's a genre of food leaning on tradition, one that covers perhaps the largest geography of all the world's cuisines — flavors of mint, olives, lamb, chickpeas and eggplant in dishes from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia to Turkey. As Chicago's Middle Eastern restaurants go, so goes Almawal, and Diab's dishes have what his patrons seek: familiarity.
One notable distinction. Diab is a master practitioner of applying fire to meat. He's been cooking since age 9, helping at his father's restaurant in his native Jordan. It is as natural to him as almawal.
In Diab's kitchen, sandbag-size bags of lump wood charcoal sit at the floor of his grill, where embers flare toward skewered meats seven days a week. Whole chickens transform into glistening golden beauties in 45 minutes. Thin, wet slices of marinated lamb and curry-powdered chicken are layered piecemeal into cylinders as big as beehives, then slowly spun on a mechanized spit until the outer layer develops a crusty char. The man holds a doctorate in heat control.
Sliced from this impressive meat wheel, the shawerma (lamb or beef, depending on Diab's whim) arrives as crisp shavings, a lemony sumac tang coupled with charcoal's bass notes. On the signature platter Almawal Mixed Grill, the shawerma shares a plate with succulent cubes of chicken and lamb shish kebabs, plus the minced beef-lamb cigars known as kufta — in other words, Diab's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1.
The portion size of this mixed grill borders on the inordinate. It is a defensive tackle's power lunch. And not for the aforementioned grilled meats, the charred tomato, blackened onion and two kinds of almond-garnished long grain rice — one spiced orange, one turmeric-dyed yellow. It's what precedes the $14.99 platter that causes reverse sticker shock: a bright-tasting Arabic salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons and mint, plus creamy versions of hummus and baba ghanouj awaiting dunks from oven-warmed pita.
Separate from the mixed grill, consider the appetizer called musabaha ($4.25), a chunky variant of hummus using whole chickpeas, or muthawama, a cool potato dip with the consistency of whipped cream, fortified with what seems like 5,000 garlic cloves. Compulsory falafel is listed first on the menu, and here, immensely crispy then immensely creamy with a strong parsley herbaceousness (six for $1.99).
The stuffed variation of falafel has onions and almonds in its center (75 cents each). I'm a particular fan of the tahini salad ($3.49), known elsewhere as a Jerusalem salad — the same diced tomato, cucumber, parsley mix as the Arabic salad, but in a savory, umami-rich sesame cream sauce.
Arayes ($5.99) is a snack teenagers would devour: a Jordanian quesadilla, essentially, crispy baked with either minced lamb and tomatoes, or gooey Nabulsi cheese, made from sheep's milk that melts like mozzarella.
Most satisfying was the Egyptian national breakfast porridge known as foul ($4.25), a fiber blast of warm pureed fava beans and chickpeas, doused with olive oil and lemon to finish. Judging these strictly interpreted dishes made with minimal components, there's little leeway to assess other than on balance and texture. Diab's half a century in the kitchen proves there exists a narrow chasm separating good from great.
As with countless mom and pop joints, Almawal's collective recipes are stored only in the memory banks of Diab, 65, his 18-year-old son Khaled and 23-year-old daughter Ayat. It's a bona fide family affair — there's the owner, Aboud, 31, a son of Majed, not to mention Majed's wife and two other children who help at the restaurant.
Majed Diab has scaled back his hours in the kitchen, with Khaled and Ayat picking up the slack. Like the elder Diab, the two picked up on the nuances of their father's cooking at an early age. The wisdom imparted, I suspect, isn't in exact measurements or with kitchen timers, but on developing an instinct. There are no recipe cards for this. Here's hoping young Khaled and Ayat maintain the masterly course set by their father.
10718 S. Harlem Ave., Worth; 708-361-5100
Open: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Recommended: Almawal mixed grill, tahini salad, whole roast chicken, foul, stuffed falafel, muthawama
Check average: $15 a person
Twitter @pangCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun