Birds of Bethlehem
Take a look around Al Aseel for yourself.
The business card for Al Aseel features a roasted chicken set against a backdrop of flames, on a glossy red-and-black surface. Underneath the name, the tagline reads: "The Taste of Bethlehem; Mesquite Charcoal Grill." It was purely by coincidence that I ended up at Al Aseel only a few short days before Christmas, enjoying a feast fit for — well — a king.
Before it was Al Aseel, it was Birds House. Although that's now changed (as have the owners), the specialties here are the same: roasted fowl of all shapes and sizes. That night, we ordered a plate of three fat quail, charcoal-grilled and resting on a bed of Basmati rice good enough to have as its very own dish.
My companion that night, Chris Frankel, is currently on a mission to find the best Middle Eastern food in Houston. I don't think he succeeded at Al Aseel (neither does he), but he did find a unique restaurant in a vast sea of boring, staid Middle Eastern food throughout the city. Al Aseel is Palestinian — noteworthy in and of itself — and this large menu of grilled fowl is certainly unusual among most Middle Eastern restaurants, from the West Bank musakhan chicken to mesquite-grilled Cornish game hens, from stuffed pigeon to charcoal-crisped quail.
It's these fowl dishes that Al Aseel does most nimbly, faltering a bit when it comes to standards like hummus or kufta. I sought every last inch of buttery, garlic-and-cardamom-saturated flesh on the quail's tiny bones that cold night days before Christmas, gnawing on them cheerfully while taking in the odd aesthetic of a Palestinian diner that once used to house an IHOP knockoff called Huddle House. Red booths line two walls, while a checkerboard pattern of white-and-green tiles comes close to clashing with the glossy black chairs in the middle of the dining room.
But somehow, the crazy black, red, white and green color scheme all comes together. After all, these colors — the ones that were already here before Al Aseel ever moved in — are those of the Palestinian flag.
I heard about a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David's character apparently finds an anti-Zionist restaurant serving the best Palestinian chicken he's ever had. I don't watch the show; it's a little too mean-spirited for my tastes. But if you've been looking for that elusive Palestinian chicken — yes, it's a real thing — you'll find it here at Al Aseel.
What you won't find, since this isn't a sitcom, are any anti-Zionist tendencies. On my last visit to Al Aseel, flying solo, the friendly owner, Ali Khativ, came and sat with me in my booth as I finished my lunch. He didn't know me, but he has that kind of manner about him: affable, open, eager to chat with his customers. It was a quiet day — the day after Christmas — and he regaled me with stories of his homeland.
"Are you Christian?" Ali asked. When I nodded a vague yes, he launched into a lovely description of all the tourist destinations for Christians in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Ali was born in Jerusalem, a city he compares to San Francisco in its diversity and geography, but is from a smaller town just north, Ramallah. Ramallah is in the West Bank, and it's this subtype of Palestinian cuisine that dominates the menu at Al Aseel.
Ali bought Al Aseel only four months ago, changing the name from Birds House to something more appropriate — "Al Aseel" means "the original" in Arabic — after experiencing a midlife crisis. He is not a restaurateur; he owns a car dealership, but decided to take the plunge after turning 40.
"When a man turns 40, he does crazy things!" Ali laughed that day at lunch, before sending me off into the chilly weather with a to-go cup of hot tea on the house. I also took my dinner to go, one of those famous Palestinian chickens. By the time I made the drive from the western stretch of Richmond to my apartment downtown, every fiber in my car was saturated with the deep, heavy scent of roasted garlic and sumac-spiced pita bread. Although I'd just eaten lunch and had hours to go until I could reheat my chicken, I wanted to tear into it straightaway.
Dinner that night was a far sight better than lunch had been. Although I'd enjoyed talking to Ali, I truthfully hadn't enjoyed my kufta sandwich at all. While the pita bread was fluffy and soft, the meat inside was sorely underseasoned and the tahini had no bite to it at all. My foul was far better, but I was nearly unable to eat the stuff, so spicy were the garlicky mashed beans in their silky pool of olive oil.
In the evening, I unwrapped the half musakhan chicken with every intention of reheating it slowly in my oven. That plan went to hell as soon as the scent of the Palestinian-spiced bird hit my nose once again. I tore off just one piece — just a bite of the drumstick — to see how the chicken would taste. An hour later, I'd eaten the entire thing cold. It was wonderful.
I managed to get one bite over to my boyfriend, who had been attacking his own leftover prime rib sandwich with glee until he tasted the chicken. "That chicken could bring peace to the Middle East!" he declared while I glared at him for being so obliviously cheesy. It might be true, though.
The key to Palestinian chicken is the tangy yogurt it's marinated in for hours before hitting the grill. The yogurt is combined with only a few key spices — cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, black pepper and a generous amount of garlic — as well as some lemon to further magnify the bright acidity of the yogurt, and to allow the spices to penetrate as deeply into the skin as possible.
Musakhan chicken takes that beautifully prepared bird, grills it over charcoal and presents it atop a doughy piece of pita bread that's been spread with thin slices of sautéed red onion and a coating of sumac, a tart spice that forms the base of important spice mixtures like za'atar. Leave the chicken to rest on the pita if you can, and you'll be richly rewarded with bread soaked in the savory juices, every bit as delicious as the bird itself.
After the half-chicken demolition session, I'd hoped to be able to end the meal with some of Al Aseel's hummus. But the container I'd ordered to-go was sadly lacking in both garlic and tahini — the polar opposite of the tangy, well-seasoned stuff I'd had only a few days prior in a comforting bowl of fatteh hummus topped with ground beef and pine nuts.
I could have also gone for a plate of sweetly smoky baba ghanoush, which has a nice mildness here not found in other Middle Eastern restaurants. If I'd been eating at Al Aseel, I would have ordered it, and my meal would have been perfect.
That's all right, though. I'll be back.
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