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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
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.