Seek and you will find good flavors off the freeway interchanges.
"When the Lord closes a Taco Bell, somewhere he opens a window."
That's the slightly altered Sunday school proverb that flashes across my brain whenever I drop in on Aida Mediterranean Cuisine. Along with a silent expression of gratitude to first-time restaurateurs Amy and Ahmed Mohamed, for yanking a forlorn fast-food outlet off Richfield's vacancy list and reinvigorating it with what this suburb -- actually, just about every suburb -- sorely needs: A distinctively appealing and affordable owner-operated restaurant.
Chefs Ahmed Hassanein and Ossam Megahed focus the majority of their work on Ahmed Mohamed's Egyptian heritage, tossing in a few splashes of Amy's Greek ancestry.
"It's basically how we cook at home," said Amy Mohamed. "With the restaurant, we wanted to do something that was fast, but also healthy. With young children, I sometimes just need to pick up food, but I don't always want to take my kids to McDonald's."
The couple's mix-and-match menu is presented as a series of questions: Start by selecting a sandwich, salad or rice plate format, then factor in a handful of chicken, beef and lamb options and a dozen or so garnishes. In 10 to 20 minutes, lunch or dinner is served.
Hassanein and Megahed proudly maintain a mostly made-from-scratch kitchen (the gyro meat is one of the few imported items, and it's totally skippable) and their efforts show. Nothing veers too far off the familiar Minnesota-meets-Middle Eastern template, but freshness and vitality come through on nearly every plate.
The falafel is terrific, a flavorful blend of chickpeas, garlic, parsley and cilantro that's rolled in sesame seeds before hitting the fryer and achieving all the right crisp-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside results. The creamy baba ghanoush has a teasingly smoky flavor, and the hummus has a marvelous garlicky kick. Tabbouleh is by the book, but its lemon and mint accents really stand out.
Lamb is a definite highlight, marinated overnight in malt vinegar and turmeric, among other savory ingredients, before turning tender and juicy on the grill. The spit-roasted, thinly shaved chicken shawarma, rubbed with a vibrant, imported-from-Egypt spice blend, is similarly fine -- it's particularly appealing in the sloppy, two-fisted pita sandwiches. Desserts include a sticky roasted nut-coconut baklava and forgettable cannoli.
Yes, the building's exterior still sports the dreaded 1980's Taco Bell design imprint, a blight on streetscapes everywhere (the ad hoc patio does little to rectify the situation) but inside, the Mohameds have slapped a sparkling new look on their small-scale dining room. Service is Welcome Wagon-friendly and attentive.
Oh, and the prices? Nothing tops $10, with two exceptions: A serves-two platter of the kitchen's greatest hits for $24.99 and a serves-four version for $47.99. The prodigious portions on both feasts are impressive, but the value is extraordinary.Smoke signals, south of the river
Meanwhile, at a Burnsville strip mall, another group of new-to-the-business restaurateurs is making quite a favorable impression. Keith Hittner, son Keith Hittner Jr. and son-in-law Elliott Ashwell are delivering impressive Memphis-style barbecue to the southern suburbs.
They call their place Rack Shack BBQ, and the streamlined, user-friendly menu offers five smoked meats, served by the pound, in sandwiches or as combo meals paired with a half-dozen sides.
All of the meats are rubbed with the same house-developed spice rub, which has strong paprika, cumin and brown sugar flavor notes. The pork shoulder and Angus beef brisket get the most attention, marinading in that spice rub for 24 hours before spending 14 long hours in the kitchen's smoker until the intensely appealing meat yields to the slightest pressure from a fork.
Kudos also for the turkey breast, which hits the smoker for three hours and then is sliced thin like the brisket. I would happily pull out my passport and make the trek to Burnsville today for another crack at all three.
For a rib joint, the pork ribs don't have the starring role that they should, coming off a trifle dry and chewy. Perhaps I visited on an off day, because the smoked whole chicken was similarly overcooked, as was the smoked potato, an otherwise fantastic way to tart up a boring old baked potato. I also wasn't bowled over by the ground brisket burger, although I made the mistake of ordering it naked; the lean, not-so-juicy beef probably requires the mountains of toppings (mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese, grilled jalapeños) to really make it sing.
Still, there are plenty of other reasons to admire this venture. Sandwiches start with sturdy onion rolls. Eight inventive house-made sauces cover the gamut from barely tongue-tickling to incendiary, with the requisite forays into sugar-kissed sweetness and vinegar-based tanginess.
Several side dishes make highly favorable impressions, including a crunchy and not-too-sweet slaw (an ideal topper for a pulled pork sandwich), addictive pork-fortified slow-cooked beans and a spot-on skillet-baked corn bread, boasting a toothy crust that yields to a creamy interior.
There's a decent beer list (the wine selection is best described as desultory), and the desserts -- including an Oreo baked inside a chocolate chip cookie -- exude the brand of all-American excess regularly associated with barbecue.
It's also encouraging to see that the Hittners and Ashwell don't take themselves too seriously. Case in point: an exercise in gleeful overkill involving a cast-iron skillet loaded with one of those smoked meats and a dollop of each one of the menu's side dishes. One look at that behemoth and I instinctively reached for a beta blocker, but, as is the rest of the menu, it's very reasonably priced: $10.95.
Like Aida, the Rack Shack does a brisk takeout business, but the modest dining room has its charms, most notably the smoker's appetite-tickling perfume, and gleaming stainless steel-topped tables, perfect platforms for the genial messiness that is barbecue.
Two complaints: Those sauces are stored in the kind of sticky squeeze bottles that make my not-so-inner germophobe wince.
Then there are the staff's T-shirts, which have "Nice Rack!" printed across the chest. The intentions are probably humorous, but they come off as an ill-advised Hooters-ism, one that is beneath an operation with culinary ambitions.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib