A Lebanese Festival, Seven Days a Week
By Tom Baker
As a recovering vegetarian I can tell you just how disappointing it is to walk into a restaurant, open the menu, and hope and pray that there is a 1) grilled cheese, 2) salad w/o bacon, or 3) an appetizer or pasta from which the meat can be removed. Fortunately, these days it seems that many restaurants are more receptive to our meatless friends, or if you’re very lucky, you have local businesses serving up cuisines — in this case Lebanese — that cover those bases without necessitating lengthy negotiation with your server. Enter House of Kabab in Centerville, and listen up — a full third of the menu is vegetarian.
George Ephrem opened House of Kabab just a couple of years ago in a former pizza joint just north of downtown Centerville. It’s a small place, seating perhaps 40, with a walk-up counter for carry out. When you walk in you are greeted warmly, and can sit anywhere you’d like. The interior is bright with large windows and a silk floral at each table — nothing too fancy. Service is friendly and prompt, but the servers are not well versed in the ingredients, so expect to wait a moment, if you plan to ask any food related questions, while they touch base with the kitchen.
Sangria is the only alcohol served, so if you’re on the wagon or not fond of wine, I would suggest the fantastic house-made ginger ale. At first glance the $2.75 price tag might seem a bit steep (no free refills), but consider the fact that you’re getting freshly grated ginger, fresh lemon/lime wedges and fresh mint, all of which play together in what appears to be either club soda with sugar or a lemon-lime soft drink. About the only thing that would make it better would be rum, but regardless it really is a great, unexpected house-made item you must try.
I think one of the best ways to experience food, especially cuisines traditionally served family-style, is to get a spread and share. This is not only more fun, but really allows you to get a better sense of what there is to offer. When visiting House of Kabab, we make sure to get a handful of the appetizers and salads, and then share one of the more substantial platters or a couple of pita sandwiches. During recent visits, we discovered some newer dishes outside of the more common offerings of Hoummus, Baba-Ghanoush, or Tabbouleh (all of which are excellent). Make sure to try the Foul Moundammas, a puree of fava beans with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, garnished with tomato and parsley. Earthy and rich in comparison to their light Hoummus, it’s served warm. The Loubieh Bel-Zeit, green beans sautéed with onion, garlic, tomato and herbs, is light and flavorful, and my recommended starting point for those looking for something they recognize. All of the above items are under five bucks, served with pita bread, and are liberally drizzled with olive oil.
House of Kabab also offers soups, one with chicken and one vegetarian. The Lentil Soup ($2.95) is excellent — the light broth, made with lentils, potatoes, collard greens, garlic and cilantro, is lifted by the brightness of lemon juice. You can also get proper salads for another lighter option, or the cool and refreshing Yogurt Salad ($2.95), a homemade yogurt blended with garlic, fresh mint and cucumber. As for entrees, you’ll find many of the staple items – lamb and chicken, Falafel, Shwarma and Kafta, and specialties such as Sojouk and Makanek, both liberally seasoned sausages. Most of these items can be enjoyed either on a pita as a sandwich, or as a platter. The House Combo features Chicken Kafta, a nicely seasoned ground chicken, Chicken Shwarma, marinated and chopped chicken, a bit of Falafel (my wife’s favorite in recent memory), and their fried chickpea and fava bean croquettes, all served alongside rice, a really lovely garlic cream and a fresh, lightly dressed salad with pickled vegetables – for just $8.95. The Makanek sandwich ($5.50) is perhaps more of an acquired taste – the strong flavors of the beef, lamb and spices were a bit too much for us, but certainly worth trying, simply because it’s not a dish you come across every day.
Finally, House of Kabab serves up some traditional and more conventional desserts like Baklava or cheesecake, and even goes so far as to bring out a small dessert tray to tempt you one last time. The Baklava ($2.00) portions are small and presented simply on a white plate, but this sweet, rich dessert option is satisfying nonetheless. I think that this last statement sums up our experiences here well – it’s a small place run by nice people, and even though the floral pieces are silk and there are no linens on the tables, I leave just as fulfilled as when I walk out of a restaurant having spent much more. The next time you’re in the mood for some light, healthy, very affordable and very tasty Middle Eastern food, head to Centerville and check out House of Kabab – no need to wait until August.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.