Cedar Cafe tries to be a lot of things at once: convenience store, carry-out, restaurant. Normally, when restaurants stretch themselves that thin, it's a turnoff. But Cedar Cafe does so well at the most important part — the food —that we feel OK overlooking its multiple personalities.
The restaurant, tucked in an intersection of two residential streets in East Towson, has been open for years. However, in 2012, current owner Buthaina Mansour (or "Mama Buthaina" as she calls herself) purchased the restaurant, giving the aging space a face lift and bolstering the menu with her own Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes.
Scene & Decor One of the downsides of the casual carry-out/restaurant/shop configuration was the awkward moment we experienced after walking through the door. It was just before seven on a Thursday night and Cedar Cafe was empty, save for Mansour and her two employees behind the counter.
Since no one was seated in the restaurant part of the space, we weren't sure if we were supposed to take a seat or order first. Fortunately, the friendly woman who would become our waitress waved us to a table, bringing us menus.
Service The rest of the meal was a mash-up of table service and self-serve. Our waitress took our orders and delivered food, but we were left to our own devices to grab silverware from trays along the back wall and drinks from refrigerated cases (Cedar Cafe does not have a liquor license and also does not allow BYOB).
The combination left us feeling slightly discombobulated but we got what we wanted when we wanted it, so overall, dinner was a success. Especially because the food, from start to finish, was excellent.
Appetizer Even before we ordered, our waitress brought us a tiny dish of creamy, tangy hummus with crispy pita chips for dipping. That was our first clue that dinner was going to be better than what we'd get at the average kabob hut.
We also ordered Mansour's homemade borek ($4.99), two oblong rounds of dough stuffed with a blend of spiced ricotta and mozzarella. Our cheese-loving American palates wished for more of the well-seasoned, melty filling but even with a high bread-to-cheese ratio, we enjoyed the doughy treat.
Entrees Mansour and her team stepped up the game even more with the entrees. An order of kibbeh ($8.95) — a Lebanese dish that looks like hard-shelled meatballs — was full of flavor and interesting textures.
The "meatballs" had a slightly hard exterior made from ground beef and cracked wheat. Inside, more ground beef was seasoned with a variety of spices and mixed with pine nuts and onions. The result packed a savory punch.
On the side, a tangy, tomato-based dipping sauce mixed well with both the kibbeh and the bed of fragrant jasmine rice on which they sat.
Cedar Cafe offers numerous kabob options: We went for lamb ($13.95), choosing more hummus and salata — a chopped salad of tomato, onion, cucumber and herbs — as our two side dishes.
The salata was acidic and bright, almost like a salsa. It made a spectacular addition to the accompanying rice and the comically large serving of hummus.
Kabobbed meats are often overdone, dry and chewy. Not so in this case. The lamb — marinated in spices and tender, cooked exactly to medium rare — was a showstopper.
Dessert We had our hearts set on a dessert of kunefeh (a sweet cheese pastry), so we were let down when Mansour told us she ran out earlier in the day. Instead, she suggested rice pudding ($2.99).
Packaged in a round plastic carry-out container, the pudding wasn't fancy but its thick texture and sweet flavor made up for the lack of a real bowl.
As we chatted about desserts, Mansour explained that she makes many menu items from scratch and they often take hours to prep. That explained why, though only a couple tables were filled by the time we left, Mansour and her crew seemed busy — and why our dinner was more leisurely than speedy.
Mansour has plans to grow and given the quality of her food, Cedar Cafe won't have any trouble attracting new customers. The space might not be polished and the service is a little confusing but the food more than makes up for all of that.
Back story: Buthaina Mansour took over Towson's Cedar Cafe last year, revamping the menu and refreshing the space. Though Cedar Cafe feels more like a carry-out than a full-fledged restaurant, Mansour's service is sweet and her Middle Eastern dishes look, smell and taste great.
Parking: Lot in back (entrance on Hillen)
Signature dish: Cedar Cafe's lamb kabobs are gorgeously seasoned and, cooked to medium rare, surprisingly tender. Served with jasmine rice and two sides (try the creamy hummus and bright, chopped salata), the kabobs make a hearty — and super flavorful — meal.
Where: 246 E. Burke Ave., Towson
Contact: 443-275-2592; http://www.cedarcafeshop.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Credit Cards: All major except American Express
Bottom line: Top-notch, homemade Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-influenced food served casually in a Towson shop/restaurant.