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Quintessence of Kebab
For years I thought that of Houston's ethnic eateries, Indian places were the most consistent. Nowadays the honors go to Middle Eastern spots; there's scarcely a mediocre one in the bunch. Oh, once I had a bad meal at Cafe NASA near the Space Center. But otherwise the city's high-grade Middle Eastern food -- the ironic blessing conferred by the region's upheavals -- keeps me happy.

One of the restaurants that keeps me happiest is Cafe Lili, a cordial family-run cubbyhole on Westheimer near Bering. Presided over by Elie Bejjani and his parents, Lili and Elie Sr., it is the essence of mom-and-popdom, a neat-as-a-pin place where you can dine alone in well-coddled comfort. The elder Bejjani is a natural host who greets and gladhands and remembers faces; who presses a potent thimbleful of coriander-perfumed coffee on you, free of charge; who once handed me into my car with my takeout boxes, tucking my coat inside. I felt like Queen Elizabeth.

And the food! Ordering kebabs is usually fraught with peril, but not here: Cafe Lili's skewers of chicken and good-quality beef emerge unscathed from the broiler, succulent and brightly seasoned, on platters big enough to share. A turbocharged garlic sauce gives the chicken real swagger; it makes the chicken-kebab sandwich a classic.

The kitchen turns out good versions of the staples (baba ghanouj, hummus, tabouli, kibbee, breathtakingly sour spinach pies clad in thin pastry shells). But the extracurricular vegetables wow me: the moussaka, garlicky eggplant boats bearing sweetly glazed onion and tomato; minty fatoush, a mixed vegetable salad spiked with pita croutons; a stew of big, fat, deliciously oily green beans. A bracing and pretty lima bean salad must contain half the lemon in the city. Mougdra, an al dente lentils-and-rice dish sporting sweetly caramelized onion threads, is worthy of a high-priced joint like Cafe Annie.

A homey blackboard menu lists specials like sheikh-el-mihshi (stuffed eggplant) and a soul-foody spinach stew. So what if you'll eat them in relentlessly tan, fluorescent-bright surroundings? The black-and-white photomural of bygone Beirut is a heartbreaker, the people-watching's rich, and the nurturing climate is richly soothing.

-- Alison Cook

Cafe Lili, 5757 Westheimer, Suite 112, 952-6969.

 
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