Every now and then, all the elements line up to produce the perfect meal. The food doesn’t need to be fancy, but it has to be good – maybe even great. A meal like this could possibly be eaten alone, but it ideally involves good company. Then there’s the environment – it might be in a restaurant, in your dining room or on a friend’s porch – wherever it is, it helps set the mood.
I had one of these experiences on a recent Saturday in Mobile, Alabama. We were on the front end of a long weekend on Dauphin Island and had no set plans. We would go to the beach, we would ride our bikes, we would eat, play games, read books and watch movies. It was time to chillax. But because we did have a wide open schedule and weren’t travelling with a half dozen other people with opinions, we called some old friends living in Mobile and planned a visit.
During our ten years in the Middle East, we spent a lot of time with this family and their kids. In fact, when Son was not quite three years old we sent him up the hill to stay with them for a little while – about an hour later, Daughter was born. We walked together through some rough times, too, and shared a lot of meals through those ups and downs. It had been over four years since we’d seen them – this was definitely an up time.
One of the meals we enjoyed together during that decade across the pond must have been shawarmas and chips – not because I have a specific memory, but because we ate them so much. So it didn’t take much convincing when Papa Lee said, “We’ll take you to lunch at this Syrian restaurant we found – they have great hummus and shawarmas.”
As we approached the restaurant, The Wife spotted a sign in the window that said, “Phone cards sold here.” I took that as a good indication that we were about to experience something authentic. Some of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten came from a place that sold phone cards to Mexico. Makes sense if you really think about it.
7 Spice Restaurant and Grill is located in the back of the 7 Spice Market. The Market itself is a brightly lit treasure trove of Mediterranean ingredients and specialty foods – the Restaurant, though an extension of the same building, is a stark contrast of dark woods accented with paintings and other Middle Eastern objets d’art.
We started with a trio of dips: hummus, baba ghanouj and labneh, served with grilled pita triangles. The hummus was drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with whole chickpeas (which is what hummus is made of, for those who may not have had the pleasure.) Papa Lee and Mama Lisa were right – this hummus was really tasty, with a hint of smokiness that may have come from the streak of paprika sprinkled over it. The baba ghanouj on the other end of the plate, which is a similar dip but made from eggplant, was also one of the better versions I have tried. The labneh in the center may have been the true highlight, though – not because it was necessarily better than the other two, but because it’s not something we see very often. The menu described it as Lebanese kefir cheese mixed with fresh mint and garlic, topped with olive oil. I realized it had been too long since I’d had labneh. I miss labneh.
To sip between bites I ordered Lebanese iced tea, a sweet tea with rose water and orange blossom water. I’ve had rose water-flavored dishes before. My first experience was rose water ice cream in a Persian restaurant in Washington, D.C. Mediterranean sweets (cakes and candies, especially) often have rose water infused syrups poured over them, and I have had my share of those as well. What does it taste like? Well, like the Bard implied, anything that smells like a rose probably tastes like a rose, too. Some love it, some don’t. I prefer lemonade in my iced tea, but I did appreciate the chance to revisit a common flavor of the region.
Now the shawarma. For those unfamiliar with the term, a shawarma is very similar to a gyro in form. The meat is on a vertical spit and cooked (or warmed) by a heat element on the back side of the spit. But while the gyro is usually beef and lamb, ground and formed on the spit and sliced into strips as it turns, shawarmas are often beef or chicken that is instead stacked into a tower of meat that is cut off in little chunks. We often joked about how many boneless chickens it took to make a full shawarma spit. A gyro is usually dressed with tzatziki sauce, lettuce and tomato, and wrapped in a thick pita, but a shawarma might have a garlic sauce, a variety of vegetable complements depending on regional tastes, and a thinner pita wrapped around it. In the “old country” we would buy them by the half dozen, request extra meat in lieu of the raw vegetables (because raw was a good way to get sick) and pay about a dollar a piece, even with double meat. The Mobile versions cost a little more, but were worth every cent. Not only that, it tasted like home, down to the slivers of pickles and French fries (aka chips) interspersed among the chicken.
All the elements were there. Street vendor-esque shawarma. Old friends. Arabic music in the background, and a chance to speak a little of the language with Ramez, the owner. After lunch we hit the market and came home with food and drinks we hadn’t laid eyes on in almost five years. Great food with great friends in a great place. Priceless.