I've known him only as Ali, since the summer of 2003. The summer I got married. A few days before the wedding, Ali, my elementary school buddy Ben, Ibrahim (the former owner of what is now Alibaba Arabic Restaurant) and I picked up four sheep in Nampa, went to Ibrahim's back yard and did the sheep.
We did them, as in laying them on a board, slitting their throats, bleeding them out, hanging, skinning, gutting them and then transforming them Bedouin style--the entire body cavity filled with aromatic rice and spices--into the best lamb dish ever.
I have many memories from that day, and still aspire to some day match Ali's mad knife skills. Earlier this year, Ali took over half the space that was for many years Aladdin's Egyptian Restaurant and rebranded it pan-Arab cuisine, including a focus on dishes from his homeland of Iraq.
The flavors in Alibaba's food were alternately familiar and new to me. The hummus plate ($3.99) presented a light, fluffy chickpea puree reminiscent of the Old City in Jerusalem, with only a tad less tahini flavor. Topped with olive oil and a kalamata olive and ringed with hot slices of pita, I recalled breakfasts in Ras Al Amoud, Israeli truck stop food, slicing lemons and smashing garlic in the Holy Land.
The soup could be an old Aladdin's recipe: a piping hot bowl of liquefied lentils, skinny macaronis and an Egyptian spice combo that took me back to a table in the Cairo souk, complete with the Arabic pop soundtrack playing in the background.
The entree, baked chicken served over rice with a side of Iraqi potatoes ($9.49), was new for me and covered in a secret spice rub, which the waitress would only say has lemon and curry in it. The rub thoroughly infused the small, half-chicken with a barbecue flavor, but also tasted a bit dry. The buttery, yellow rice scattered with peas and crunchy onion bits helped moisten the bites.
And just when you think you've had every potato dish, along come Iraqi potatoes, chunked and fried with the same secret, we'll call it Cradle of Civilization rub, which I'd prefer with some chile.
The food at Alibaba's is authentic, and Ali has not tried to conceal its origins by calling it Mediterranean or some other euphemism for Arabic food. I'll give his Iraqi spiced chicken another chance.
I finished my lonely trip down memory lane--I was the only one in the restaurant until another party arrived for a late lunch--with a cup of dark mint tea, two sugars, just like we used to do after every meal and before every meal and pretty much all day long when I was rolling in the Middle East.
--Nathaniel Hoffman likes his shawarma wrapped in old copies of Al-Ahram.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Alibaba Arabic Restaurant here.