Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, May 1, 2003
Al Hamra\r\nLabenah $1.99\r\nBaba ghanoush $2.99\r\nLamb Biryani $7.99\r\nFalafel plate with hummus $5.99
Lathe of Heaven

Al Hamra’s Middle Eastern specialties will have you walking on clouds.


Al Hamra

701 E Pioneer Pkwy, Arlington. 817-303-4999. Open daily, noon-9pm. Daily buffet in addition to menu. All major credit cards accepted.

he tiny Middle Eastern café that opened a little more than a year ago in Central Arlington isn’t situated in the most scenic part of the city. (Then again, is there a scenic part of Arlington?) But walk through the doors of Al Hamra, and you’ll see that owner-operator Jamila Qaddura has striven for a scrap of palatial splendor, with Persian rugs on the wall, fake palm trees with enormous plastic butterflies attached, and a carved fountain whose steady trickling competes with the piped-in Arabic music. Here Qaddura and her cooking staff whip up a variety of appetizers and entrées from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Her attention to gastronomic detail provided one of the subtlest, most satisfying meals in my recent memory.

Case in point on scrupulous food preparation: It’s funny how many of us chronic restaurant diners don’t recognize truly fresh vegetables until we meet them on our plate. Al Hamra’s sliced tomatoes, onions, radishes, and pickles are colorful, and they taste refrigerator-cool but just harvested.

Party-dip fanatics could get stuffed on the array of condiments Al Hamra provides with its thick, soft, warm pita wedges. The restaurant’s hummus — the most famous Middle Eastern dip, composed of ground chickpeas, olive oil, lemon, and countless seasonings — is smooth as buttermilk, with no chickpea husks to surprise you. Their baba ghanoush is a lovely ensemble of cooked eggplant pieces, yogurt, cilanto, and maple syrup, the sweetness of the syrup only hinted at with each mouthful you take. The real find here is labenah, a kind of yogurt “cheese” in which the cook spreads yogurt on a cloth, presses most of the moisture out, and then lightly salts it, and refrigerates it overnight. I think we slightly offended Jamila when we compared the delicacy to sour cream, but that’s still a reasonable flavor parallel. Served in a silver dish with mint leaves, black olives, and a pool of olive oil in the center, this dip caused a small power struggle — who would finish it? — among me and my two guests.

For lovers of cooked flesh, I recommend the combination plate — skewered and grilled meat kebabs served on a bed of basmati rice with crunchy chopped vegetables on the side. You get beef and chicken with this special order, but I can’t imagine visiting a Middle Eastern restaurant without sampling the lamb. Here it’s succulent, almost buttery, unlike what you’d find in the type of cheap gyro meat that can make you queasy. I knew that Allah was smiling on me when they brought out the rice dish known as Lamb Biryani. Mutton slices were pan-simmered along with butter, ground almonds, ginger, and garlic. The mutton is placed between layers of rice and grilled onions; atop the whole dish is a gingery brown gravy from the pan that makes cafeteria gravy taste like recycled petroleum oil. To paraphrase William Blake: Little lamb, who made thee so damn yummy?

The only item that did not meet my expectations was the falafel plate. Those fried patties of chickpeas, pita bread crumbs, and sesame are a fast-food staple at stands throughout the Middle East. Al Hamra’s patties resembled either hockey pucks or Girl Scout cookies, I couldn’t decide which. They’re dark, bitter, and chewy almost to the core. A favorite Dallas haunt of mine is the Ali Baba Café on Lower Greenville, where the falafels are prepared crusty on the outside, moist and fluffy on the inside. I much prefer their version, but it’s really a matter of opinion, not quality.

An über-white man like me walking into Al Hamra gets delish foreign food and a small culinary education to boot. It’s easy to forget how our fast-food culture — a scene I dig for its Taco Bueno beef burritos and Whataburger double cheeseburgers with jalapeños — has made the gustatory experience all about texture, not taste. The seductive mouth-feel of fried or grilled fat lulls drive-through devotees into mistaking heavy salt for flavor. Then Al Hamra opens a little strip-mall joint next to an international grocery store, and suddenly Arlington is a big place, taste-wise — low salt and low fat and lots of olive oil, lemon juice, yogurt, parsley, sesame, and garlic. These recipes remind me about the glorious potential of my tastebuds, when they’re properly challenged.

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