People (my mom) always ask(s) me why I studied Arabic in school if I just want to be a food writer. Most of the kids I took Arabic with work for the government, for NGOs, for think tanks — they're putting their degrees to good use. Where am I? I'm at Café Beirut in JP tryna get a fried-cauliflower sandwich for lunch and maybe chat with the girl behind the counter in broken, colloquial Lebanese Arabic.
Many Middle Easterners will tell you that Lebanese cuisine is the best in the region. But disappointingly, most Americans go to places like Café Beirut and only get hummus and falafel. Don't get me wrong — Café Beirut has exemplary versions of both — but limiting yourself to those things is like only ever listening to the first two tracks of a critically acclaimed album.
That fried-cauliflower sandwich ($5.49) and its cousins, the fried-eggplant and fried-okra sandwiches ($5.49 and $5.99, respectively), contain tahini, lettuce, tomato, mint, Lebanese pickles, and optional (but suggested) hot sauce — and they're all fantastic. You can build your own mezze plate ($6.99) from a plethora of options, among them hearty mujaddara, smoky baba ghanoush, garlicky, lemony foul mudammes, and bright little stuffed grape leaves, served warm in the Lebanese style. Rotating dinner specials show off chef/partner Ali Hachem's serious skill — on a recent night, I devoured lamb kefta in a cumin-scented tomato sauce served with potatoes, rice, more of those addictive pickles, and a tomato-and-cucumber salad sprinkled with sumac ($10.99). A frequently appearing special of baked eggplant with chickpeas ($9.99) will satisfy vegetarians and sympathetic omnivores like myself.
All that being said, if you want falafel ($5.99 sandwich or $9.99 plate) or shawarma ($6.99 sandwich or $11.99 plate), go for it. But just like in music, sometimes the deep cuts are what keep you coming back.
EAT UP | 654 Centre St, Jamaica Plain | 617.522.7264 or cafebeirutjp.com | Mon–Sat, 11 am to 9 pm; Sun, 11 am to 8:30 pm