Never mind an Emmy. If the Hollywood Reporter and the Huffington Post have their way, comedian Larry David might qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. That is if a 2011 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm can do what diplomats and politicians have failed to do over the years. In the episode, entitled Palestinian Chicken, Larry discovers a Palestinian restaurant that serves the tastiest chicken in Los Angeles. The problem is that the restaurant is owned and operated by anti-Semitic Palestinians and Larry is Jewish.
Now, Larry could hardly be considered a peace-maker by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, his lusty ardor for both the chicken and the restaurant’s proprietor, override his loyalty to Judaism and the local Jewish community. The episode so impressed Alan Dershowitz, appellate adviser to O.J. Simpson’s defense team, that he sent a copy to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with the suggestion that he invite Palestinian President Abbas over to watch it with him. Dershowitz’s theory: “maybe if they both get a good laugh, they can begin a negotiating process.”
Negotiating world peace over dinner isn’t exactly a novel concept. A New York group named World Peace, One Falafel at a Time aims to bring Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths together over food. The group’s mission statement is clear: Through a shared plate of food we create a common ground that fosters trust and understanding. When people share a simple meal together, boundaries disappear, discussion becomes possible, and healing can begin. We come together not as a meeting of a thousand, but as one hundred meetings of ten.
It wasn’t world peace my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” and I had in mind when we set foot in Yasmine’s Cafe one fine May day in 2013. It was whirled chickpeas (hummus) which beckoned. We wanted to give chickpeas a chance. It was Sr. Plata’s inaugural visit to Yasmine’s and my first visit in nearly five years. A lot has changed in five years.
Yasmine’s, which launched in late 2003, was one of several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants which launched in the Duke City during the century’s first decade. Albuquerque’s climate and topography is somewhat similar to that of the Mediterranean region, but it’s more likely that the explosion (more like a cap pistol than dynamite) in Middle Eastern restaurants in the city is because Albuquerque has finally become sufficiently metropolitan in size, population and sophistication to host several good to outstanding Middle Eastern restaurants? Whatever the reason for that growth, local diners are grateful.
Named for one of the original owner’s daughters, Yasmine’s offers all the traditional favorites of the Middle East region. It has the authentic look and feel of a restaurant somewhere in the cradle of civilization and is a welcome departure from the boring sameness of chains. Yasmine’s is owned by a Palestinian family and has developed a wide reputation as a haven not only for Muslims, but for anyone craving authentic and delicious Mediterranean cuisine.
A set of Islamic Shariʻah dietary laws called “halal” regulates the preparation of foods (not just meat) at Yasmine’s Cafe. Halal, a term which translates to “permitted” means all food must pass strict dietary guidelines very similar to kosher rules. No antibiotics and hormones are permitted on meats and all animals must be treated humanely from field to table. The person slaughtering an animal must evoke the name of Allah during the slaughter. Pork is strictly forbidden.
The menu at Yasmine’s showcases the cuisine of the Mediterranean not inclusive of the foods of Spain, France and Italy. It demonstrates the commonalities of regional foods, preparation styles and spices that cross cultural and religious barriers. It showcases the foods of Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Greece and even parts of North Africa. Rotisserie chicken is on the menu, but you’ve got call in an order a day in advance. Otherwise, every other item is available on-the-spot and ordered from a counter.
Baba Ghanoush, a smoky dip made from eggplant and tahini with a smooth, creamy texture is one of the most popular starters at Yasmine’s and is served with one of the vegetarian platters, too. It makes the perfect dip for the warm, fresh out-of-the-oven pita bread. Open up the pita bread and wisps of fragrant steam escape, an olfactory invitation to an addictive pita. The baba ghanoush, while texturally a success, isn’t spiced quite as heavily as at other Mediterranean restaurants. That is a common theme at Yasmine’s.
Another popular starter is the stuffed eggplant, four eggplant slices stuffed with rice, onion and the restaurant’s special blend of spices. One of the telltale signs of fresh eggplant is its freshness, characterized by an absence of bitterness and the strange “metallic” taste sometimes found in poorly prepared eggplant. Yasmine’s stuffed eggplant is perfectly prepared. It’s neither too mushy nor too chewy. The rice is moist and flavorful with a subtle spice blend that doesn’t dominate the flavor profile.
One of the more intriguing items on the menu is called the Mexiterranean Burger, perhaps the most unique version of the green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico. The patty is made from a marinated ground beef charbroiled and stuffed in a pita then topped with onions, Provolone cheese, tomatoes, tzadziki sauce and Hatch green chile. It’s not only a unique take on a burger, it’s a rather delicious one. As with far too many green chile cheeseburgers, the chile isn’t especially piquant.
Fortunately Yasmine’s condiment offerings include a hot sauce that emboldens the flavors of everything to which it is added. The hot sauce is a Day-Glo colored orange sauce with a peppery piquancy reminiscent of fine cayenne. Best of all, it’s not vinegary as some hot sauces tend to be. This hot sauce is a huge hit on the burger, but even moreso on the accompanying French fries. The fries are strictly out-of-the-bag, but douse them in the hot sauce and their flavor is improved exponentially.
The Chicken Shawarma, boneless chicken marinated in special spices, slowly roasted and thinly sliced is apportioned generously and served on a bed of fluffy rice with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on the side. Ask for a side of sumac to add just a bit of tartness to what is surprisingly an under-seasoned entree. There’s no disputing the quality of the boneless chicken, but a more liberal use of spices would improve its flavor profile. So will the aforementioned hot sauce.
The original owners of Yasmine’s made the very best pistachio baklava in New Mexico. It was one of my very favorite desserts and best reason for the restaurant. Alas, pistachio baklava is no longer on the menu, but the baklava on the menu is stuffed with finely crushed walnuts. The walnuts cut the cloying taste of honey to prevent a mad sugar rush, but they’re not quite as wonderful as the pistachios. We found the layers of phyllo pastry somewhat chewy with little flakiness.
Yasmine’s Cafe offers several delicious choices for vegetarians and vegans. Frankly, it offers something for just about every discerning diner. It’s the type of restaurant in which peace talks could certainly be inspired.
1600 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Baba Ganouj, Walnut Baklava, Chicken Shawarma, Mexiterranean Burger, Stuffed Eggplant, Pita Bread