Aladdin Halal Restaurant and Pizzeria
544 Deming Road, Berlin, (860) 829-8284, aladdinhalal.com
In this age of mega-marketing, cross-platform leveraging and multimedia blitzes, most businesses find a million ways to shove their products down our throats. You know, not literally. Restaurants work to trumpet their specials to anyone who will listen. And then there are some places that are really quiet, even stealthy about what they do. It's almost as if they don't want the public to know. I'm not talking about the ultra-hip places in New York, those places that don't hang a sign out front, and don't advertise or give out a phone number. Restaurants like Aladdin in Berlin can give the impression that they're not interested in working to win over new customers. The food — home-style Middle Eastern with an Egyptian and Lebanese feel — is very good and affordable. You just might not know that the restaurant is there, tucked into a quiet shopping center just off of the Berlin Turnpike, appearing to the outside to be a low-key pizzeria.
The signs say pizza, but the name, Aladdin, signals the Middle Eastern connection. Aladdin is the sister restaurant to the Aladdin on Allyn Street in downtown Hartford. Both restaurants feature halal meats — sort of the Muslim version of kosher, if you will. Both have Syrian-style pizza-like flatbreads called lahambil ajeen. These are also called sfeeha or Syrian pizzas, in some places. They're packed with the flavor of garlic and lamb and parsley, but not heavy like pizza. It's a good option for those looking to avoid cheese.
The Aladdin in Berlin has a few booths and small tables and a TV in one corner. A painting of chili peppers hangs on one wall. It was a little cold when I ate there last week. You order at the counter and the staff brings the food to you. There's not much atmosphere. But the food is the draw; since there's probably something like one Middle Eastern restaurant for every 3,000 pizza restaurants in the region, it would seem that getting the word out about what's on the menu might attract those in search of falafel, hummus and kabobs.
Many of the main Middle Eastern dishes can be ordered served in a pita, in a wrap or as an entree as a part of a platter. I tried the kofta kebob platter ($12), which had ground and seasoned lamb that had been shaped into little sausage-like blobs and grilled. This came with sides of moujadarah, a dish of lentils and bulgur wheat topped with thin crispy curls of sweet fried onions. There was also a small pool of impressively silky baba ghanouj. The smoke came through on this pureed-eggplant dip, which is sort of a more complex and tricky cousin to hummus. A pleasant acidic citrusy tang cut through the other flavors.
Falafel is often either too hard or else too mushy. Aladdin does an admirable job skirting those two dangerous extremes and finding a middle ground that's nice and crispy but with the right pliant "give," after you get past the exterior. Dunk bits of these fried chickpea creations into the baba ghanouj or a creamy yogurt and cucumber dip for maximum pleasure.
A fattoush salad conveyed a lemony punch with a lovely dusting of deep red sumac powder that provided color. Between bites of crisp lettuce, the fattoush is studded with crunchy little pieces of fried pita bread, which add texture and substance to the dish.
There are grinders and pasta dishes in addition to the pizzas. There are a number of meat dishes (liver, kebeh, chicken shawarma and more), but vegetarians have a broad selection from which to choose, with tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves and spanikopita in addition to the falafel, baba ghanouj, hummus and fattoush.
If you enjoy the sense of knowing something that others have yet to learn, a Middle Eastern meal at Aladdin may make you feel you're in on a secret.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun