Sunday, December 03, 2006

I Heart Beirut

Sultan’s Market: (Wicker Park) Chicago
2057 W. North Ave.

The temperature seemed to be dropping below freezing; I wanted nearby cost-conscious comfort food for lunch; and a savory falafel sandwich and zatter bread (a traditional mix of sesame seed, thyme and sumac rubbed on flat bread with olive oil) sounded like it’d fill me up quite well.

It was just after 1 p.m. yesterday -a Saturday afternoon. Inside Sultan’s, a line of hip looking customers waiting to order curved from the counter towards the door. As the person in front of me got their food and moved up the line towards the register, my turn came. Menus on the counter clearly identify the vegan options: spinach pie, falafel, zatter bread, hummus, baba ghanooj, tabboule, Jerusalem salad, lentil soup and rice and lentils. A salad bar adds dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice), roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled turnip and more. Once, I asked if the lentil soup was vegetarian - knowing it's one item that would most likely be vegan if it was veg - and got a solid, "it's vegan," back.

I got my food, paid and sat down to take the scene in and eat. The register displays an I heart Beirut sticker and a computer jamming remixes of Arabic sounding music holds a booth. Behind the counter, pans hang aside the burners and someone mechanically scooped fresh light-colored falafel –soon to be dark and crispy- into the deep fryer. Middle Eastern groceries line the shelves under the counter: bags of large or red lentils; sesame seeds; herbs and spices like sage, cinnamon, fenugreek, cardamom, and sumac; mixed nuts; Jordan almonds (candied as pastels and whites); cans of chickpeas, fava beans and stuffed grape leaves; bottles of olive oil, rose water, tahini; and various hot sauces.

Above the tables, hanging strings of colored beads circle stylized light fixtures. A cusped archway fronts each booth’s concave canopy. Many tables extend beyond the boundaries of their booths, with chairs surrounding the extensions, and take on groups yielding lively combinations of talking and eating.

A neighborhood moment came upon leaving Sultan’s. I ran into an acquaintance I’d run into in the morning at Green City Market. He had been bicycling home with bamboo plywood for a desk from Greenmaker ("Chicago’s green building supply store") in the bags of his Xtracycle. We looked at the wood’s striking streaks. He told me that some of the pieces in the plywood had been baked, which brought out a caramel color that provided great contrast. Seeing this bicycle delivery the day after the season’s first snowstorm made me smile. Having Sultan’s in my belly kept my face happy all the way home in the cold.

Update with Jon and Kerry: December 29, 2006

Is the baklava vegan? Oh yes, they said. This was the perfect post-falafel treat to have just after my brother's girl Kerry rolled in on the Blue Line on a suprise layover from O'Hare airport. On the walk out to return a movie at Earwax, we ran in to my good pals Satya and Amod and their friends from Bombay. Could we have found a better to show Kerry around Wicker Park? The next day cycling to a coffee break with my roomie Liz, I ran into Satya and Amod again. This time, we
were at the same cafe, sipping coffee in the extra room at Alliance Bakery that you get to from the sidewalk, and ended up chatting about projects.


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