The St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Magdalena, New Mexico is adorned with ceramic statues, most familiar and easy to identify…at least for lifelong Catholics like me. After Sunday Mass one September, 2010 morning, we espied a statue of a saint clutching a curious implement to his chest. None of the parishioners we asked had any idea who the statue represented. Father Andy Pavlak, the parish vicar, confirmed the statue depicted Saint Lawrence of Rome and the curious device he held was a gridiron, a metal grate used for grilling meat, fish, vegetables or any combination thereof.
Father Pavlak went on to explain why Saint Lawrence clutched the gridiron. Saint Lawrence was one of seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Valerian. The manner of death he suffered was especially gruesome. The intrepid saint was grilled on a gridiron. As his flesh cooked, Lawrence is said to have cried out, “This side’s done. Turn me over and have a bite.” That probably explains why Saint Lawrence is the patron saint of comedians, butchers and roasters. He is also patron saint of several parishes throughout the Land of Enchantment.
I suspect Saint Lawrence might also be the patron saint of grillmasters. If so, I sure could use his divine intercession. Like the administrators of his death, I seem to have a problem discerning when one side is done. Consequently one side is usually charred to the consistency of coal while the other is as rare as the raw beef fighters apply over wounds acquired in the ring. It doesn’t matter how closely I study the collective writings of Bill and Cheryl Jamison, America’s preeminent outdoor cooking experts, my results are disastrous. On the grill, I’m a disgrace to my gender.
Because I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of meat, fish, poultry and vegetables, my Kim would just as soon see me wave the white flag of surrender (though I’d probably drop it on the grill and only one side would burn.) Better still, she’d rather I take her to a restaurant in which bona fide grillmasters impart the olfactory-arousing direct application of heat to produce succulent results. Frankly, that would be my preference, too…so, perhaps my ineptitude on the grill might be a subliminal thing. Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself.
It’s no secret that some of the very best grilled meats anywhere are prepared to perfection in Middle Eastern restaurants. Many Middle Eastern dining establishments have mastered the enviable art of imbuing meats with the pungency of exotic spices; a distinctive aroma inherent from woods with personality; a whisper-thin crust that seals in flavor and tenderness in a pleasantly pink interior; and any number of heavily spiced, flavorful sauces, all of which seem to highlight even more of the magnificence of meat in all its grilled glory.
In Albuquerque as in many other cities, Middle Eastern restaurants seem to fall into two stratum: opulent, lavishly adorned dining rooms or time-worn cafes in bedraggled edifices. Experience shows that spit and polish alone don’t make the restaurant. Some of the very best Middle Eastern restaurants are often found in tumbledown buildings. Perhaps the very best of these is the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant on the southwest corner of San Pedro and Montgomery in the Northeast Heights.
The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is ensconced in a stand-alone building that frankly could be home to just about any retail business. Much of the building is dedicated to comestibles. Its shelves are well-stocked with Middle Eastern spices, groceries and dry goods. Adventurous cooks will enjoy walking up and down the aisles studying all the wonderful options, perhaps inspired by the olfactory arousing aromas coming from the small kitchen at the front of the complex. The counter separating the kitchen from the store doubles as a counter in which patrons pay for their purchases or place their to-go orders.
Dine-in and carry-out options abound. Should you decide to dine in, there are several comfortable booths and tables available. Along with the usual condiments, the booths include hookahs, ornamental and functional tobacco pipes which use water to cool the smoke. The menu over the counter is abbreviated; you’ll be handed a laminated menu to take with you to your table. From the window-side booths, your vantage point will be of busy San Pedro to your east and the wondrous Middle Eastern spices on the other side.
The menu is surprisingly ambitions considering the relatively cramped quarters. Reading from top-left, the first items to catch your eye are appetizers and small order items followed by a seven salads, only one of which you might see at any type of restaurant. One entire page is dedicated to platters, both meat-based platters and vegetarian platters. Platters generally include a meat or vegetarian entree with hummus or rice and one of the seven sensational salads. Homemade fresh pita bread (which you can see being made at the kitchen) comes with several of the platters.
The last page of the menu is dedicated to sandwiches–non-vegetarian and vegetarian–and desserts. It’s an intriguing menu, one you might expect to see at a larger Middle Eastern restaurant and not necessarily at a grocery store doubling as a restaurant. Your hosts are brothers Muhammad and Abraham, who are as cordial and accommodating as any restaurant proprietors in the Duke City. Both are more than happy to recommend various options and will check up on you periodically. Trust their recommendations.
The appetizers section includes some de rigueur standards you’ll find at almost all Mediterranean restaurants. The difference is that the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant prepares them better. “Heresy,” you say. After our inaugural visit on November 13th, we were so impressed that we had to return a week later to confirm what our taste buds were saying. They were telling us this humble little establishment might be the very best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque. Urbanspoon readers seem to agree. As of this writing, 94% of the 75 readers voting on its page indicated they liked it. Muhammad proudly points this out to new visitors.
The dolmes, a six-piece appetizer of stuffed grape leaves served with tahini sauce is one of those items at which this restaurant excels. Decoratively plated so that the six dolmes form a pool for the tahini sauce, you can use the plastic fork to cut the dolmes into smaller, bite-sized pieces, but Muhammad will encourage you to eat your entire dinner the way it would be eaten back home in Palestine. He would just as soon you dispense with your fork altogether. Great advice! The dolmes are fabulous!
Unlike many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants in the Duke City, these dolmes are homemade, not from out of a can. They have a very distinctive flavor with nary a hint of lemon. The distinctiveness comes from a seven spice blend, one that’s just slightly different than many seven spice blends I’ve seen in Japanese and Arabic cooking. This one is made with All Spice, Black Pepper, Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Fennel and Ginger, a blend which enlivens the vegetarian dolmes with a flavor punch that will wow your taste buds. The dolmes are even better when dipped into the fresh, invigorating tahini sauce.
Another terrific starter is the six-piece falafel plate. Falafel (chickpeas mashed with onions then fried to a nice crunch) are hemispherically shaped, like the top half of the Earth. Bite into each falafel and you’ll experience the sensation of a slight crispy crunch followed by a soft, moist inside that tastes unlike any falafel I’ve ever had. It’s the type of falafel which should be used to help broker peace in the Middle East. They’re that good! Seasoned with herbs and spices, they’re served with a luscious yogurt sauce which complements them wonderfully.
For years, my local standard for Baba Ghanoug, roasted eggplant with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic, has been Yasmine’s Cafe, yet another terrific Palestinian-owned treasure. If possible, the San Pedro Middle Eastern Restaurant’s version is even better. It’s rich and creamy with a prominent garlic flavor. In Middle Eastern fashion, you’ll want to cut up pieces of the wonderful housemade pita (still fresh and warm) and use the pita to scoop up as much Baba Ghanoug as you can fit into your mouth. Each bite is an adventure in appreciation.
The highlight of the salad menu–and you can’t go wrong with any of the seven choices–may just well be the Bakdunecea Salad (parsley with tahini and lemon juice served with olive oil). This salad has powerful qualities, a term you might not associate with parsley. Parsley is usually thought up as an ingredient to chop up and sprinkle on entrees needing color. It’s sometimes thought of in a decorative sense, not for its flavor enhancing qualities. Used correctly and in combination with other ingredients (such as tahini), it is refreshing and assertive.
Another sensational salad is the Tabbouli (lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, mint, cracked Bulgar wheat, fresh lemon juice and virgin olive oil). Growing up in Peñasco with Lebanese neighbors, I was introduced to Tabbouli, Kibbeh and Tahini long before I’d ever had Chinese food or even my first Bic Mac from McDonald’s. The Tabbouli may be the best I’ve ever had, reminding me in some ways of what a Middle Eastern pico de gallo might taste like. It’s got remarkable freshening qualities, like a savory and delicious breath mint.
It wouldn’t be a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant without a sensational hummus (ground chickpeas with tahini sauce, lemon juice and garlic) and that, too, is available at the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant. You can order it on its own as an appetizer or you can order one of the several platters with which the hummus is served. The hummus encircles the meat platters like an island of creamy, garlicky goodness. Muhammad taught us to use pita to scoop up heaps of meat and hummus with our hands. It’s the only way to eat them.
The Lamb Shawarma (marinated slices of lamb) is terrific (as if that needs to be said). Instead of shaved lamb as you’d find on Greek gyros, the lamb is sliced into smaller than bite-sized pieces, each blessed with a grilled smokiness and penetrated with seasonings that are so distinctively Middle Eastern. Sprigs of fragrant, roughly chopped parsley impart fresh qualities which meld with the other ingredients to fashion a fabulous flavor profile.
Not since Banbury, England in 1987 have we had better shish kabob (cubes of extra lean beef served) than we’ve had on San Pedro. In describing the grilling expertise at Middle Eastern restaurants earlier in this essay, I must have had this shish kabob in mind. The meat is grilled to perfection. At medium, it has just a slight hint of pink inside while its exterior texture is nicely charred. It’s the type of grilling expertise I lack. It’s perfect grilling.
Another exceptional platter which showcases the grilling process and exceptional seasoning is the chicken tawook platter, marinated juicy cubes of chicken breast with garlic sauce served with hummus, salad and the homemade fresh pita bread. The chicken is moist and tender, absolutely impregnated with flavor though not so garlicky that it will wreck your breath. Instead, the garlic melds wondrously with a hint of grilling.
The chicken shawarma, an island of small-cut chicken pieces surrounded by hummus is yet another fabulous entree. Similar to the chicken tawook, garlic is a prominent flavor as is the wondrous fragrance of grilling. Parsley also fits prominently into the flavor profile, imparting an invigorating herbaceous freshness, but this dish is best when scooped up with hummus and that absolutely amazing pita. Abraham tells me he makes some 700 pieces of bread on an average day. I’ll typically have four of them each visit and take home another half dozen. This is the best pita in New Mexico!
Even on the rare occasion in which an item you don’t order is delivered to your table, you’ll want to try it before even thinking about sending it back. Such was the case when my friend Ruben and I ordered dolmes and a strange looking dish with an even stranger name was placed before us. As it turns out, the Foul Mudammas with Pita is an outstanding appetizer, one which will visit my table in the future.
There’s nothing foul about this wonderful dish which is made with diced fava beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Given the same ingredients and asked to create something wonderful, there’s no way most of us could ever concoct anything nearly this good. The humble fava hasn’t made significant inroads in the American diet, but in combination with the right condiments and spices, it’s more than palatable. Fava beans have tremendous healthful benefits, too.
The San Pedro Middle East Restaurant is reminiscent of the type of restaurant you’d find in an ethnic rich area of a large metropolitan area. It is frequented by customers of all ethnicities, the common denominator being the recognition that this is a very special restaurant with incomparable food, terrific service and the type of grilling skills I envy.
San Pedro Middle East Restaurant
4001 San Pedro
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2011
1st VISIT: 13 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Shish Kabob Platter, Lamb Shawarma Platter, Fresh Pita Bread, Bakdunecea Salad, Garden Salad, Dolmes, Falafel, Baba Ganouj, Shisk KaftaPlatter, Beef Shawarma, Tabbouli, Chicken Shawarma, Foul Mudammas with Pita