Abu Nader Grocery and Deli (St. Paul, MN)
For the most part, if a restaurant doesn't look like it's thriving, we're skeptical about it. Not every dusty storefront is worth checking out. But we'd heard enough about the counter at Abu Nader that we decided to give it a try.
There's nothing fancy about the food here, but everything's tasty and some things are superb.
Let's start with the pita sandwiches. You can order shawarma, made from spiced beef and lamb, or chicken shawarma. Either one is great. You can order a falafel sandwich. All of these come with some combination of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumber sauce, and tahini; and all the ingredients are fresh and good. Our favorite was the Abu Nader special: ground beef mixed with onions, parsley, and spices and served in a pita with humus.
Another good option is the falafel plate, either as a meal or a large appetizer to share. It's falafel balls, humus and assorted pickles served with pita.
And when you get your food, stop and just taste the pita. Pita is a yeasty double-layered flatbread made all through the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world. It's light and hearty at the same time -- a perfect accompaniment for all sorts of meals. They come fresh out of the oven at Abu Nader, warm and delicious with the slightest hint of char. Pita comes with everything and goes with everything.
The appetizer menu offers some other good choices. We liked the spinach pie: fresh spinach, onions, and spices baked in a pastry shell. Also the meat pie, with onions, parsley, pine nuts, and spices. Less good was the pepper and feta pie; ingredients that ought to have made a strongly flavored dish just tasted bland to us. We also liked the fried kibbi balls, consisting of ground beef, onions, pine nuts and spices rolled in wheat flour. The stuffed grape leaves merely disappointed us.
All of these appetizers taste better with dipping sauce, so we recommend asking for some cucumber sauce, tahini or yogurt -- it doesn't come with it otherwise.
Both soups, the lentil and the chicken, are flavorful.
Abu Nader also sells the standard Middle Eastern dips: hummus, baba ghanouj, and ful (made from fava beans). All these are traditional and tasty, much fresher than typical grocery store varieties. They also make a nice tabouleh.
If you want to eat in, there are a few tables at the front of the grocery store part of the restaurant. But really, Abu Nader is a take-out counter. Grab dinner on the way home, or a boxful of lunches for your office. If you order ahead, they'll make great party platters for larger occasions.
When we hit that sweet spot in the food/service/price trifecta with good food, prompt service and a great price, we care a whole lot less about the setting. The food at Abu Nader shines so high above the zero-ambience storefront that we'll be back, even to eat in.
Abu Nader Deli and Grocery
2095 Como Ave.
Reservations: Not required
Diet Choices: The menu accommodates all manner of vegetarians.