The Mideast Lands in a Plantation Shopping Center

Photo by Flickr user mariannaF
Homemade labneh just can't top Al-Salam's.
Obama is speaking in Cairo, even quoting verses from the Qur'an, glad-handing Arab leaders, and no doubt settling down for intimate talks with King Abdullah II over a pot of Turkish coffee and some sticky pastries loaded with pistachios. And here's Hillary Clinton, touring the Middle East wearing a headscarf.

I suggest we follow our leaders and go respectfully mingle with our nearest Muslim neighbors, who tend to congregate in a Plantation strip mall on Friday nights for a bit of kibbeh and foul medames.

This thriving commercial strip at Plantation Crossroads caters largely to Middle Eastern immigrants. A grocery sells hookahs, honey, and hummus, along with many varieties of olives, finely ground coffee, nuts, packaged phyllo dough, and long shelves of spices. The coffee shop next door stays open late so the gents can socialize, serving the same function as a corner bar for this crowd of teetotalers. A travel agent arranges flights home, and the calligraphic signs on a handful of other businesses keep them impenetrable to us. On a Friday night, the whole area is bustling with extended families, the ladies veiled or not, wearing long skirts and headscarves fringed in gold, the younger girls in jeans and tank tops, a few Western couples thrown into the mix, perhaps an Indian woman in a sari with her Arab husband and a passel of kids.

The distinctive, lilting music of the Middle East is piped through the sound system; pop videos and commercials beamed via satellite from Cairo play on the TVs mounted high on the restaurant walls -- videos that get progressively more libidinous as pious mothers herd their broods home and the exhausted male staff kicks back with cups of coffee and sandwiches. Glowing red figures in a gilt-framed digital clock keep the date and time in Beirut and Tikrit and Cairo and Riyadh.

The bustle and energy of the place would be enough to draw you even if the food weren't so delicious. The menu at the anchor tenant here, Al-Salam Middle Eastern Restaurant, is halal, meaning it's prepared according to the standards of Muslim law. And I'm still dreaming about my last dinner at Al-Salam, still wondering how they achieved the texture of that labneh, a very thick salted yogurt spread, sometimes described as a cheese, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with dried mint or other spices.

After a second visit, I'll write a full review of Al-Salam for the next issue of New Times. If my first visit is any indication, I'll be back many times. Now that we've got a president whose father was Muslim, it's time for us all to cultivate détente with our Islamic neighbors. You'd be hard-pressed to hold on to any enmity or misunderstanding over a plate of Al-Salam's baba gannouj. When it comes to kebabs, we're all in this together.

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