Aladdin’s Eatery

By | April 12, 2006

Aladdin’s Eatery
5878 Forbes Ave
Squirrel Hill, 15217
M-Th 11am-10:30pm; F&Sat 11am-11:30pm; Sun 11am-11pm

Aladdin’s has it goin’ on. Voted Best Hummus of 2003, 2004, and 2005 (by Me), and purveyor of good, cheap eats galore, Aladdin’s has become a sort of comfort food for the good people of Squirrel Hill (and perhaps its other locations as well). It isn’t exactly straight-up Mediterranean, but more like Mediterranean with a twist. Aladdin’s says the twist is that the food is more healthful than other ‘faster-food’ eateries, but the giant cakes you see when you first walk in would beg to differ. I’m not totally clear on what exactly the twist is, but one thing’s for sure: Aladdin can rub my lovely lady lamps any time.

Aladdin’s is actually a small chain from Ohio that has seeped its way into Pittsburgh. I have one friend, a Steve S., who would say that all good things come from Ohio (Columbus specifically). Among his list of ‘good’ things is Bob Evans, so I usually take this comment with a grain of salt. However, he does seem to be right at least some of the time, as Aladdin’s is a welcome Ohioan import.

As mentioned before, Aladdin’s schtick is that they prepare foods that are good for you. They serve smoothies, low-cal soups, plenty of salads and salad pockets, and so on and so forth. The healthful-ness is certainly true in some cases, but as with any restaurant, the sky is the limit. You can get your falafel, followed by your deep-fried crispy kibbee balls to dip into your creamy garlic sauce, ending with your giant slice of fancy cheesecake. But, you can also actually get a reasonably-caloried meal too! I’ve seen people go and get just a big bowl of lentil soup or a big salad. They make all their own salad dressings, too. I haven’t tried them all but I’ve never been that impressed by the ones I did try – nothing special there. My favorite thing to get is the Loubie plate, which is basically a bunch of flat green beans in a tomato based sauce, with rice to eat it on. The best thing about the Loubie plate must be the giant cloves of roasted garlic that are usually generously distributed throughout the dish. They are so squishy and sweet, MMM! Another dish I like to get when I am feeling especially diet-conscious is the fruit and yogurt bowl. The fruit is usually in pretty good shape (B+ grade), and the yogurt is mixed with walnuts and laced with honey. That is one good yogurt bowl! It is a decent amount of food too, so I can actually eat it as a main course (not that different from a salad).

I have to spend at least a little time talking about the hummus. For many of you, it will be the best hummus you’ve ever had. It is so ultra-smooth and silky. It comes with a little pile of oil on top, which is somehow really satisfying. I’m not in love with Aladdin’s pita bread, but it works as a vessel for the hummus. There are also other dinners that are based around hummus, so you don’t have to get it as an appetizer. However, in my opinion, the hummus tastes different once you get it with chicken on top as a meal. It just isn’t the same. Maybe I am crazy, but I think some sort of balance gets out of whack with the addition of other components.

Another thing: you may have noticed that Aladdin’s won Best Hummus only in 2003, 2004, and 2005. What about 2006? Well, quite simply, I found another hummus. Be still my heart – it’s true! I found a better hummus and it’! Gasp! Please don’t tell Aladdin! In case you want to try the absolute best hummus on earth, go to the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle, then to the ice cream section. Turn around, and there is a big cooler full of Sabra’s hummus. OMG, it is SO GOOD. I love the luscious lemon and the supremely spicy humm-i. MMM. But for restaurant hummus, Aladdin’s still wins my heart a thousand times over.

The aforementioned ‘twist’ items include hot pita rolls with fillings and ‘pitza’-s (pitza = junk on a pita that you eat like a pizza). Basically, you can get almost any combination of items in a cold salad pita, a hot pita roll, or on a pitza. You just have to go there a few times to find what you like. Just as an aside, I had some friends who really swore by the tuna chunk roll, but ended up being disappointed by the inconsistency of quality. At its best it is amazing, but at its worst…well, you know what dry tuna chunks are like. They don’t ever make it ‘rare’, so if that is what makes you salivate then don’t even think about it.

Their chef’s special list is significant as well, with items like tasty fried kibbee, jasmine’s favorite (a rice, bean, and veggie extravaganza with your choice of topping – schwarma is yummy), loubie, and the lamb plate. The lamb is highly recommended – it runs a very close second to the lamb skewer at Mediterranean Grill. Med Grill wins first because they ask you how you’d like your lamb cooked, whereas Aladdin’s just delivers it one way. Still mighty tasty though! I also think their mujadara is spot on, with the best crispity curly onions on top of lentils and rice.

Sadly though, Aladdin’s does not do everything well. The hummus comments made above do not hold true for the Baba Ganooj, which is hands down done best by The Mediterranean Grill down the street. I also am not particularly fond of the grape leaves at Aladdin’s, which are, once again, best served by the Med Grill. And I don’t love their soups, especially the V-9 which tastes vaguely of canned something-or-other in the background. The soups are all very good for you though, and that is a plus.

One other not so great item is the cake. I am going to get so much flak for saying this, but the cakes just aren’t that amazing. Yes, they are huge. Yes, they are pretty. Yes, their names sound delicious. But, I’ve never had a slice of cake there that I actually thought was tasty. Most of the time I regret having eaten it at all. They just aren’t all that. I feel the same way about Gullifty’s, where they claim to have the best desserts in town. To me, there is a long way between ‘big’ and ‘delicious’. They just aren’t correlated. If I am going to spend some hard-earned calories on dessert, it better be frackin’ amazing! Like Burnt Almond Torte amazing. No cake at Aladdin’s or Gullifty’s is even remotely as good as that. I was particularly disappointed by the peanut butter cake. It is ever so faintly flavored. Where is the peanut butter?! It really riles me up!

My theory for the crummy cake situation is that 1) they are imported from Ohio and are thus older by the time they get here, 2) sacrifices in taste were made in the process of creating big, beautiful cakes, and 3) there are so many varieties on any given day (10-15) that they end up being served at a rate just a little slower than the freshness optimum. All these points lead me to my little nugget of Aladdin’s cake wisdom. You can get the cake – you’ll be tempted for sure – but if you do, choose the cake that has the least amount of slices taken out of it. It will be better.

Even with all my little poo-poo paragraphs above, I really do recommend Aladdin’s. It is a comfort spot, and their food is mostly good. You really just have to go and find something to your taste. In addition, it is relatively cheap and fast, so you can go out to eat and not break the bank. Finally, they really DO offer healthful menu items, and so dieters will really appreciate this restaurant. Vegetarians too – that is how many options there are. Go visit Aladdin’s, you’ll be surprised – just don’t mention that thing I said about his hummus.

Lamb Plate

Baba Ganooj
Grape Leaves
Anything with tuna in it
Cake (unless you pick the freshest one)

It may seem like I mention Mediterranean Grill a lot, and that is because it is really authentically good! If you don’t believe me, then listen to this: I regularly see the owner dude of the Squirrel Hill Aladdin’s at the Med Grill!

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