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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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If you go out to eat as much as I do (lots of times per week), you are probably always on the lookout for a good deal. Luckily for you, I've found not one, but two places serving decent Middle Eastern food that doesn't cost a lot of dough. Only got $5 in your pocket? That's about all you'll need.

Andersonville's Taste of Lebanon isn't pretty, but you won't hear the regulars complaining; the dirt-cheap prices and accommodating staff more than make up for the grungy tiled floor, the tacky, pink neon sign hanging in the window, and the minimal shabby decor. In fact, although I think the atmosphere (or, rather, the extreme lack there of) encourages customers to order food to go, I'm often surprised at the number of people who choose to wait for one of the few tables in the joint.

As I have learned, a little atmospheric discomfort is well worth the tasty offerings at Taste of Lebanon. Plates of hummus or baba ghannouj -- smoked eggplant blended with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice, and topped with olive oil and fresh parsley -- were listed as appetizers (each $3.99), but either dish served with warm pita, would be enough for lunch or a quick dinner for one person. Vegetarian grape leaves ($2.99 for 6) were also filling; the leaves themselves were a bit oily, but the fresh vegetables filling and strong minty flavor made this dish memorable.

The falafel wrap, a large, warm pita stuffed full with fresh patties, tomatoes, parsley and tahini sauce, was also quite good. Maybe the tomatoes and parsley weren't as fresh as I would have liked, but at only $2.29 is it fair for me to even complain? I think not. Better still was the chicken chawarma wrap with grilled chicken breast cooked in a fragrant sauce with a hint of cinnamon and spices, rolled with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and tahini sauce; in fact, I would even go as far as to say that this may be the best chicken chawarma I have had in the city. And, with a $2.99 price tag, you'd have to agree with me.

If you have somehow missed the theme of the last few paragraphs, it is simply this: Taste of Lebanon is insanely cheap. So what if the place is in dire need of beautification? The standard Middle Eastern eats are hot and fresh, and, if you're lucky, you might even get free baklava at the end of your meal.

Aladdin's Eatery is a bit more expensive than Taste of Lebanon (and I've never been offered free baklava), but this Lakeview restaurant is still an agreeable place to grab a quick, affordable meal. This cozy, well-lit storefront offers a variety of healthy Lebanese, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean-influenced food; not only are there are countless vegetarian options, a raw juice bar and smoothies, but Aladdin's boasts of using fresh vegetables and natural, nutritious foods. Even the falafel is healthier than that at other places, I was told, because it is fried in peanut oil (with mixed results, I have found).

At Aladdin's (if you order to go), $5 will get you a plate of tasty hummos with fresh herbs, olive oil, and pita ($4.65), a heaping bowl of homemade lentil soup made with swiss chard, celery, potatoes, and onions topped with feta ($3.10), or a fresh Lebanese salad made with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, fresh herbs, doused in a vinaigrette ($4.95). My favorite is the hummos falafel rolled pita with fresh tomatoes and parsley and Aladdin's signature hot sauce ($4.95), although once in a while Aladdin's falafel tends to be too dry and crunchy (I blame the "healthy" peanut oil). While you can go a long way on $5, there are also a number of tasty combination entrées that come in around $8 -- including the stuffed spinach pie with salad and the hummos plate topped with chicken shawarma -- should you feel a bit more spendy.

Aladdin's is decent and inexpensive, but some customers may be turned off by their tendency to Americanize many of the dishes. How else would you explain the inclusion of salad pockets and a whole page of "pitzas" on the menu? A further example of this rampant Americanization is the fact that many of the dishes are somewhat bland; usually I ask for extra hot sauce and pour it on whatever I order. Those looking for a nutritious alternative to the 1,600-calorie burritos next door (Chipotle) may appreciate the fact that Aladdin's food tastes very healthy, but those hungering for authentic Middle Eastern cuisine might be disappointed.

Either of these places -- Taste of Lebanon and Aladdin's Eatery -- is well worth a visit for a quick, tasty meal. And maybe you won't end up liking them, but hey, you'll only be out $5.

Taste of Lebanon is located at 1509 W. Foster (between Clark and Ashland). It is closed on Sunday.

Aladdin's Eatery is located at 614 W. Diversey Pkwy. Visit them online at

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brian / May 3, 2004 9:48 AM

The Pita Inn should be added to this list too, though they are in the suburbs (Niles, Wheeling, and Skokie I believe).

Sam / May 3, 2004 3:47 PM

Good call on Taste of Leb. Really good fattoush, too.


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