’Tis Dining Month, the tastiest time of year! This means we’re dishing up fun and fascinating food content throughout October. Dig in, Milwaukee!
Looking for new spots to try? Lori Fredrich will be dishing out her top five picks in 20 different dining categories throughout the month of October.
Milwaukee has far to go when it comes to culinary representation from the diverse set of countries so often unfairly homogenized by terms like "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean." Fortunately, recent years have brought an increasing buffet of regional specialties from countries including Syria, Palestine, and Iran, and I have high hopes that more will follow.
In the meantime, here are five spots that offer a delicious peek at the regionally distinctive cuisines often disguised by the use of more generic nomenclature.
1. Damascus Gate
There’s little more delightful than a trip to Damascus Gate, where Syrian fare is both showcased and celebrated. There’s vibrant, lemony hummus and hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves with tangy pomegranate molasses. And don’t miss the fatayer (handmade pies); the spinach is deliciously nuanced and the cheese pies are both tasty and beautiful, flecked with black sesame seeds. Foods are also presented as both individual dishes and platters, allowing you to sample your way through numerous dishes in a single trip.
2. Taqwa’s Bakery & Restaurant
There’s a feast of dishes to savor at Taqwa’s, which celebrates dishes from climes including Jordan and Palestine. Stand-outs include signature entrees like dawalee (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned meat and rice) are served alongside roasted chicken with yogurt cucumber salad; along with daily specials like shoshbarak (beef dumplings) in yogurt sauce with rice.
Be sure to try the freshly baked manakish (Palestinian taboun bread topped with cheese and za'atar and tender house-baked fatayer (hand pies) stuffed with spinach, onions and sumac. And don’t leave without ordering something from the list of freshly baked sweets (both the maamoul and warbat are outstanding).
3. Pita Palace
At pita palace you’ll find staples like falafel, kebabs and shawarma sandwiches. But you'll also find memorable starters like foul mudamas, a dish with origins in Egypt that's comprised of a tastty puree of mashed, boiled grassy-flavored fava beans enhanced by bright lemon, crushed garlic and cumin. Don’t sleep on entrees like shish tawook, chicken marinated with yogurt, citrus and plenty of garlic. Daily specials are also worth your while, particularly the Jordanian mansaf served on Saturday and Sunday. It’s comprised of lamb cooked in a fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with rice or bulgur.
4. Holy Land Grocery and Deli
2722 W. Ramsey Ave., (414) 817-1959
Sometimes even the humblest places deliver in unexpected ways. Such is the case at Holyland, a grocer which also houses an easy-to-miss-restaurant tucked away along the front corner of the grocery space. The kitchen is tiny and serves up an equally small menu of Middle Eastern basics; but what they do serve is well done. I love their housemade falafel, which boasts a deeply crunchy sesame-seed doppled exterior and a light, fluffy interior; you can buy them by the half- or full dozen or as a sandwich, which is perfect eaten alongside their house baba ghanouj. Their lamb shawarma is also well worth eating; it’s tucked into freshly made flatbread with delicious pickled turnips and other vegetables and tahini. Be sure to grab something sweet (and inevitably nutty) from the bakery on your way out.
Shahrazad is temporarily closed to prepare for relocation from its longtime home at 2847 N. Oakland Ave. to 3133 N. Oakland Ave., a retail space most recently occupied by Halal Guys. But it would be a shame to leave them off of this list.
After all, there are lovely dishes to enjoy at this East Side staple, which has served up a menu of excellent Iranian dishes and Palestinian staples, since 1993. And I’ve been a longtime customer, whether just stopping in for simple lunches of lentil soup and tabouli or lingering over dinner and Turkish coffee with friends. Explore the menu and you’ll find shareable appetizers like garlicky spinach borani dip and slightly smoky baba ghanouj along with entrees like sorar, a fragrant feast of lamb, spiced rice, nuts and raisins wrapped in tender, crisp phyllo dough and vegetarian shakshuka, a tomato-based vegetable stew which can be enjoyed at varying spice levels from tame to positively incendiary.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.