“I hope I live long enough to see the children of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria
wake up to the sounds of birds not bombs.”
Historians believe the name Syria derives from the Ancient Greek word “Seirios,” meaning, “sun-bright, glowing, blazing, and shining.” In Latin the equivalent term “Sirius” was used not only to denote the brightest star in the night sky and most prominent star in the constellation Canis Major (the greater dog), but to indicate “people from Syria.” Officially today, Syria is known as the Syrian Arab Republic. Lying in the east coast of the Mediterranean in the Middle East region which boasts of the most ancient civilizations in the world, Syria has historically existed in a cauldron of instability wrought by uprisings, conflicts and wars.
Having been conquered by Arabs, Persians and Ottoman Turks as well as having been a hub on the old Spice Road, Syria boasts of an ever-evolving cuisine that is an amalgamation of various culinary cultures and styles. Some of Syria’s traditional dishes are peppery, some colorful and some not so much. One commonality of all Syrian foods is exquisite flavors that will leave you wanting more. Alas, because of the decade-long Syrian civil war, six million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011. Even in exile, many Syrians have a reverence for their cuisine and speak of it with the same pride, fervor and obsession with terroir as the French do.
During our inaugural visit to Al Alwan’s Cafe, we discovered for ourselves just how much pride and reverence Syrian transplants have for the cuisine of their homeland. Within their eponymous restaurant, the Alwan family prepares and serves some of the very best Middle Eastern food you’ll find in the Duke City. They’re plying their culinary talents at a familiar location, too. Occupying the site which previously housed the much-missed Need A Pita since December, 2021, Cafe Al Alwan is a worthy successor to the cafe which served the best pita we’ve had. If you’re wondering why the cafe’s name is Al Alwan’s and the family name is Alwan, it’s because “al” means “the” in Arab and often prefaces Arabic proper nouns, such as family-names.
As with its predecessor Al Alwan’s Cafe showcases baked goods and pastries in a pristine pastry case. The cafe is otherwise fairly spartan, one wall featuring three black and white framed photographs of nature scenes in Syria and New Mexico. Another wall has a small painting showcasing the restaurant’s name in a field of olive branches. A refrigerator sporting the Pepsi label holds canned sodas, bottled water and other beverages. Forget these and ask for the mint lemonade, a refreshing and delicious drink with sprigs of mint punctuating a tart lemonade. You’ll want a refill or three.
Al Alwan’s menu has many of the familiar favorites aficionados of Middle Eastern cuisine. Appetizers include baba ghanoush, hummus, dolmas and dolmas. Soups and salads include taboleh, fatoosh and lentil soup. Entrees, all of which are accompanied by rice, pita bread and a salad, include shawarma, kabab platter, gyros platter and a very special and very traditional Syrian kasha rice. A number of sandwiches are listed as are savory pastries stuffed with spinach, feta cheese and za’atar. Then there are desserts. Baklava may be the pride of Syria, but the kanafeh just might be what you’ll remember most.
10 March 2022: In the 1960s when Middle Eastern restaurants weren’t nearly as common as they’ve become in the 21st Century, baba ghanoush was largely just an amusing name used on Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy show. Thomas used the lack of familiarity with foreign terms among mainstream viewers across the fruited plain to get laughs by naming a wacky supporting character on the show as “Baba Ghanoush.” “Baba Ghanoush” returned to the airways in the late 80s when Dennis Miller, doing Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, began referring to the audience as “Baba Ghanoush.”
Today most adventurous diners recognize baba ghanoush as a thick roasted sauce or spread made from mashed eggplant and sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon and garlic. In Arabic, “baba” means “father” and ghanoush (when spelled ghanouj) translates to “spoiled” or “pampered.” In essence, the creamy dish translates to “spoiled old daddy.” Al Alwan’s rendition is superb! Served with pita bread for dipping, it’s got wonderful earthy qualities with a very discernible smokiness. It’s a waist-friendly, healthy dip that’s delicious, too.
22 February 2022: Scan the menu quickly and unless you’re an aficionado of Middle Eastern rice, you might just fly by “kasba rice” without seeing that it’s served with half a chicken. Kasba rice is the national dish of Saudi Arabia and is intended to be served as a one pot dish with chicken. The named ingredient is a long-grained Basmatic rice which has a nutty and fragrant flavor that is different to other rice varieties. Couple the natural fragrance and flavor properties of Basmatic rice with spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves and you’ve got one of the most fragrant and flavorful comfort dishes available in Middle Eastern cuisine. Cafe Al Alwan’s one pot rendition also includes vegetables which further add deliciousness.
The Kasba rice is served with a very creamy hummus which, savvy diners will recognize shares all but one ingredient with baba ghanoush. Hummus is a paste or dip made of chickpeas mashed with oil, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini, and usually eaten with pita. The main difference between hummus and baba ghanoush is the main ingredient: hummus is made with mashed chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), and baba ghanoush is made with eggplant. Hummus, based on volume consumed and purchased, is (by far) the more popular of the two (though your friendly neighborhood blogger prefers baba ghanoush–and it has nothing to do with its spelling or name).
22 February 2022: The blog Dubailad believes “life before shawarmas must have been awful.” In its feature detailing the evolution of the shawarma, the blog also contends “Any self-respecting meat eater from anywhere in the world loves a shawarma.” Indeed, shawarma has become one of the world’s most popular street foods. As with gyros and later al pastor, shawarma owes much of that popularity to the vertical rotisserie style of cooking that evolved during the 18th Century. The vertical rotisserie’s “super power” is its ability to optimize the flavor and tenderness of meat or chicken.
We didn’t see any evidence of the vertical spit at Cafe Al Alwan, but there’s no mistaking the aromatic spices and tenderness of the meat within the shawarma combo. Those spices (coriander, allspice, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, ginger and black pepper) not only impart the delicious qualities we love, but imbue the outside of the meat with a deep, rich color. Al Alwan’s shawarma is among the best in Albuquerque. Its generous combo platter includes chicken and an amalgam of beef and lamb, all of which are exemplary. So is the seasoned rice, hummus and salad.
22 February 2022: Writing for Edible Rhody, Nancy Kirsch expounded on the popularity of baklava in Syria: “Baklava is to Syria as apple or cherry pie is to the United States; it’s a popular dessert that Syrians in Aleppo consider an everyday sweet treat. Aleppo Sweets’ sumptuous baklava contains just the right combination of sweet syrup and nuts to robe the tender crunchy layers of phyllo dough. It’s a contrast to Greek baklava, which tastes more sweet and syrupy.” Frankly, because it’s not nearly as cloying as Greek baklava, Syrian baklava has long been my favorite version. Cafe Al Alwan’s version is unique. Contrary to the conventional square shape of most baklava, it’s serpentine, but no less delicious. Best of all, both pistachio baklava and walnut baklava are available.
10 March 2022: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” and I had so many pieces of pita bread with baba ghanoush that I told him my entree would have to be something Al Gore, the inventor of the internet, would have ordered. Not surprisingly this comment drew a puzzled look from my friend. I explained the hypocrisy of our former vice president and environmentalist in that in 2017 Gore’s 20-room, 10,070 square-foot mansion used nearly 231,000 kilowatt hours of electricity over a 12 month period compared with less than 11,000 for an average American house. Gore paid about $22,000 in annual electric bills for his Nashville home, not including $432 a month he pays for carbon credits.
If that type of rationalization is good enough for Al Gore, I reasoned that the six pieces of pita I devoured would be offset by Al Alwan’s vegetarian plate, the mahshi platter (dolmas, stuffed eggplant, stuffed zucchini and taboleh). My thinking may be self-deluding and hypocritical, but at least my lunch was delicious. Further, because the restaurant was out of dolmas, my caloric consumption would be lessened just a little. Both the stuffed eggplant and stuffed zucchini are engorged with seasoned rice, tomatoes and herbs. Both not only assuage “ate too much pita” guilt, but are absolutely delicious. The taboleh is constructed primarily from two ingredients: parsley (and lots of it) and bulgur wheat. Taboleh is quite tasty, but even a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice could prevent it from being a bit dry.
10 March 2022: In 2020, World Vision, in partnership with the World Food Program, fed some 30,000 Syrian child refugees. One of the primary sources of nourishment which sustained the children were Syrian pastries. Al Alwan’s Cafe offers several savory pastries–one topped with feta cheese, one with za’atar, one with spinach and one with beef. These pastries are light enough to serve as an appetizer or to be consumed for breakfast, but a couple of them are probably filling enough to be served as a main course (especially if you’ve consumed six pieces of pita beforehand).
Za’atar is very much an acquired taste, a blend of savory dried herbs such as oregano, marjoram or thyme, and toasted earthy spices like cumin and coriander, with sesame seeds, salt and the most important ingredient of all… sumac. Picture opening up a fragrant and powerful spice jar and pouring its contents into your mouth. That’s the effect of za’atar. Even atop a round pastry, the spice mix can be a bit overwhelming. The beef pastry is more to our liking though my friend Sr. Plata and I found it a bit dry. We’d rather have more pita.
10 March 2022: Unless you already know what it is, the first time you see a slice of kanafeh destined for your table you’re likely to think it’s topped with shaved carrots similar to my favorite Indian dessert Gajar ka halwa (make sure to visit Namaste for my favorite version). Despite appearances, no carrots were harmed in the creation of kanafeh, one of the most popular of all Middle Eastern desserts. My Egyptian friend and college Nader Khalil introduced me to this fabulous dessert some time ago and it’s become an obsession for me, too.
Al Alwan’s version is superb! What you might mistake for carrots is actually crunchy kadaif (angel hair) made from wheat flour and sugar with water into a type of phyllo dough and then shredded to resemble fine angel hair. Two layers of kadaif are filled with a layer of akkawi (a warm cheese), sprinkled with nuts, and baked. After baking, the warm kanafeh is topped with a delicious syrup of sugar and rose water then topped with crushed pistachios (almost necessary because this is a very sweet dessert). Kanafeh just might just become one of your favorites.
If you believe all Middle Eastern food is the same, think again. Each country and region has its own variations that impart nuanced differences upon dishes common to the entire country or region. Syrian food is all about keeping things simple by letting great ingredients shine through age old methods and spices.
Al Alwan’s Cafe
5017 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2022
1st VISIT: 22 February 2022
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Shawarma Combo, Kabsa Rice With Half a Chicken, Pistachio Baklava, Baba Ghanoush, Mint Lemonade