There's a cute little print on the wall of the Al Pacino Cafe in Mount Vernon revealing that beneath the Egyptian pyramids sits a homey, wood-burning pizza oven. Who knew!
The image is apt. Nearly 15 years ago, the cafe opened and helped broaden Baltimore's culinary horizons by turning out both good pizza and enticing Middle Eastern specialties. Today, the cafe is part of a three-restaurant chain, with outposts in Pikesville and Timonium.
After many years away, we returned to the cafe recently and found it mainly satisfying, but a bit off its game. Service was both slow and brusque, and the dining area, with fake flowers on the tables and unfortunate earth-toned wallpaper, could use some sprucing up.
As for the food, nothing annoyed us (with one exception), but nothing was compelling either.
We started with yellow lentil soup ($3.95), a thick, aromatic version served with yummy garlic-flavored pita bread. The Alexandria salad ($8.95) offered romaine lettuce, thin slices of decent lamb and feta cheese crumbles.
A kofta kebab ($11.95) featured highly seasoned ground beef shaped like sausages, which were grilled and served over rice, accompanied by a small salad. The heavily spiced meat may not be for everybody.
A chicken teriyaki sandwich ($7.95) was served in a puffy pita and was on the too-sweet side, but got devoured at the house by one of the teenagers in attendance.
Finally, we tried two of the cafe's many pizza offerings. A small plain ($6.95) came with a thin crust and flavorful tomato sauce - a delicate winner. A tahb pizza ($8.95 for a small) included grilled eggplant, sliced hot peppers, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. In our view, the combination of so many different tastes did not work particularly well.
As for dessert, aargh. The menu listed several enticing items, none of which was available, although two Egyptian desserts were on the specials board. We ordered one, but our server initially forgot to include it. He eventually gave us a coconut-flavored pastry dessert ($4), which was not what we had ordered. In any case, it was inedible; enough said.
Parking is on the street, which can be a challenge in Mount Vernon.
Al Pacino Cafe
Waiting area: **1/2
Where: 900 Cathedral St., Mount Vernon
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday
Prices: Middle Eastern appetizers, soups, salads, kebabs, lamb chops, sandwiches, pastas and pizza, $3.95 to $17.95; credit cards accepted
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *