New York’s 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

February 13, 2012 6:00 AM

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dayofhoney New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster

Annia Ciezadlo writes about food and politics in the Middle East and elsewhere. She was a special correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad and The New Republic in Beirut. She has also written about culture, politics, and the Middle East for Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The Nation. Annia lives with her husband in New York and Beirut.

In the fall of 2003, as Iraq descended into civil war, Annia Ciezadlo spent her honeymoon in Baghdad. For the next six years, she lived in Baghdad and Beirut, dodging bullets during sectarian street battles, chronicling the Arab world’s first peaceful revolution and watching Hezbollah commandos invade her Beirut neighborhood. Throughout all of it, she broke bread with Sunnis and Shiites, warlords and refugees, matriarchs and mullahs. Day of Honey, published from Simon & Schuster, is her memoir of the hunger for food and friendship during wartime — a communion that feeds the soul as much as the body.

Here, Annia recounts her favorite Arabic cafes, grocery stores and restaurants across New York City.

falafel sandwich thinkstock1 New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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8 Maiden Lane
Manhattan, New York 10038
(212) 428-4669
Hours: Mon to Sat 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.

In the early 2000s, when I worked on Wall Street, I would steal away from my desk to get lunch at a narrow storefront on Fulton Street, just around the corner from the World Trade Center. They dished out superb Syrian street food; even in those days, there was usually a line. Alfanoose survived the attacks and moved to a much bigger location on Maiden Lane. To this day they serve some of Manhattan’s most perfect falafel and kafta sandwiches. Forget the falafel you thought you knew — the spongy semicircle of pita crammed with fried falafel balls and a haphazard assortment of vegetation. A true falafel sandwich is not a sloppy sack of wet ingredients. It is a work of architecture: three or four falafel balls, lined neatly down the center of a split-open circle of real, actually flat Arabic flatbread; flamingo-pink spears of pickled turnips standing to attention by their sides; tomatoes and parsley distributed along the meridian; tahini and (optional) hot sauce poured evenly over the entire arrangement so that each bite, once it is carefully wrapped into one long parcel, surrenders exactly the same proportion of sauce, vegetables and crispy warm falafel. That is what you will get at Alfanoose.

zaatar thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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Ba’al Café and Falafel

71 Sullivan Street
Manhattan, New York 10012
(646) 368-9957
Hours: Mon to Sat 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.

There are places in this town that portion out zaatar — the glorious greenish-brown powder made of bitter herbs, oily sesame seeds, and sour sumac — as if every grain was worth its weight in gold. I’m happy to report that Baal Café is not among them. Abraham Mimi, the outgoing owner, brings his mother Afaf’s homemade zaatar all the way from Amman, Jordan, and dispenses it with the generosity of a king. Afaf’s characteristically Palestinian version of zaatar carries a whisper of coriander and cumin, and that hint of unexpected spice shows up across Baal’s menu. Try the Baal Salad, an exquisite combination of fennel, feta and olives; the zaatar french fries; and Mimi’s homemade whole-wheat flatbread with caraway seeds. You can get the chewy, delicate rounds of bread topped with a batter of eggs and cheese, a good quarter-inch of zaatar, or feta and basil. Oh, and the usual stuff — falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, shepherd’s salad — is outstanding as well.

lentil soup thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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236 5th Avenue
Manhattan, New York 10001
(212) 683-2929
Hours: Mon to Fri 12 p.m. – 3 p.m.; Mon to Wed 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Thurs to Fri 5:30 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.; Sat 12 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.; Sun 12 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.

There are only three restaurants in this world where I will order kibbeh nayeh (“raw kibbeh” in Arabic), the silky smooth blend of raw meat and cracked wheat flavored with mint, onions and olive oil. Two of them are in Beirut. The third is ilili in the Flatiron District. When owner and chef Philippe Massoud makes traditional Lebanese dishes — kibbeh, lentil soup, shish taouk with garlic — they taste so much like Lebanese home cooking and street food that you can almost hear the car horns and muezzin’s wail of Beirut. If you want to go all out, order one of Massoud’s upscale fusion creations, like the duck shawarma or hummus with lobster and oyster mushrooms. But you can also make a meal out of ilili’s masterful meze and sides: the Phoenician fries, spangled with sumac and parsley; the batata harra, crisp cubes of fried potatoes with cilantro and Aleppo pepper; and Massoud’s famous Brussels sprouts, studded with walnuts and grapes and laced with minted yogurt and sweet fig purée.

pita thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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123 Lexington Avenue
Manhattan, New York 10016
(212) 685-3451
Hours: Mon to Sat 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.

I have a love-hate relationship with Kalustyan’s, the venerable, jampacked little shop where Manhattanites have sought out rare South Asian or Middle Eastern ingredients since 1944. On the love side: they stock anything and everything, from “forbidden” black rice to cracked green wheat freekeh to half a dozen kinds of pistachios. Their courteous, efficient staff is always happy to help you hunt down some exotic spice or condiment. On the hate side: it’s far more expensive than other South Asian or Middle Eastern groceries (possibly a function of Manhattan rents). But one thing keeps me coming back to Kalustyan’s. It stocks Family Pita, which is, hands down, the best Arabic flatbread in the Tri-State area. Family Pita is real khubz arabi, made with just flour, water, and yeast — no salt and sugar, no additives, and none of the sponginess of Americanized imposters. At 99 cents a bag, Family Pita more than makes up for the markup on everything else.

baked eggplant thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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7523 3rd Avenue
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn New York 11209
(718) 748-5600
Hours: Tues to Fri 12 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sat 10:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sun 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.

My first meal at Tanoreen was also my first iftar, the meal that breaks the daylight fast during the Muslim holy of Ramadan. Back in 2002, Tanoreen was a homey storefront with a glass cooler in the back and excellent Levantine home cooking. Rawia Bishara, the Palestinian Christian owner, came by herself with glasses of jallab, the syrupy fruit beverage that Muslims drink to replenish their blood sugar after the fast. I spent most of the next ten years in the Middle East; when I returned to New York, the small Bay Ridge restaurant had exploded into a giant, glitzy, hipster foodie destination. The food is still good, but no longer a bargain. You’re better off skipping the showier entrées and opting for home-cooking classics like the baked eggplant — one of Bishara’s signature dishes. It’s still, ten years later, some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

grape leaves thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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144 Atlantic Avenue
Brooklyn, New York 11201
(718) 488-8886
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.

This little storefront doesn’t look like much. But step inside while they’re cooking and you’ll register a couple of things that bode extremely well: the first is Samira, the grandmotherly woman who rules the kitchen and knows exactly what she’s doing. The other is the smell, a heady mixture of garlic, lamb, parsley, cilantro and simmering sauces. Skip the unremarkable meze and go straight to the gorgeous home-cooked entrées: stuffed zucchini and grape leaves, both made by hand and packed with rice and lamb; perfectly formed balls of kibbeh; and the lamb pizza, a meaty, garlicky delight heavy with chunks of lamb and flecks of red pepper and green onions. Waterfalls is one of the very few restaurants in New York that make mlukhieh, the stew made from jute leaves. Samira makes her sublime version in a characteristically Syrian style, a rich green broth with whole leaves and generous chunks of spoon-tender lamb.

flatbread thinkstock New Yorks 7 Best Arabic Grocery Stores & Restaurants

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283 Smith Street
Brooklyn, New York 11231
(718) 875 1880
Hours: Mon to Thurs 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Fri to Sun 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.

A true story: when we were moving in together, in the thick of an exhausting and seemingly endless apartment search, my husband and I walked past the Smith Street branch of Zaytoons and decided to give it a try. The yeasty, druglike fragrance of baking bread dough; the generous Arabic flatbread slathered with zaatar and feta; the perfect kibbeh; the lahmajin topped with spicy lamb, tomato, and sumac; the foul mdamas, made the Levantine way, with chickpeas and fava beans—all of it conspired to convince us to find an apartment as close to this restaurant as possible. We ended up living a few blocks away, eating at Zaytoons several times a week, and never regretting the decision our stomachs had made.

Annia Ciezadlo’s Day Of Honey was published in February 2012 from Simon & Schuster.

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