Ever wanted to see the inside of a traditional Bedouin tent? Check out our slideshow for that and more at Cafe Mawal.
I've yet to eat a meal at Cafe Mawal that I haven't enjoyed outside. A massive wooden deck attached to the rear of the restaurant — which used to be a single-family house in what was once a quiet Galleria-area neighborhood — almost ensures that you'll want to dine al fresco. Owner Abraham Abdallat has attached ceiling fans to the stocky branches of the oak trees that hang overhead, a quirky touch that is just one in a string of idiosyncrasies that make Cafe Mawal such an enjoyably offbeat place to dine.
"If my mother saw a lebneh sandwich on a menu, she'd slap us both and tell us to leave," said my friend over dinner one evening, only half-joking. Shortened somewhat from when it first opened last summer, the menu these days at Cafe Mawal focuses on Middle Eastern comfort food and backyard grilling-style items. Seeing a lebneh sandwich on any menu, anywhere, is akin to seeing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at an American restaurant...but not on the kid's menu.
We didn't order it, but we did get a spread of other low-key items: kibbeh, tabbouleh, grape leaves, kafta kebab and little sausages called makanek. It was almost like having a backyard picnic, the restaurant itself giving off the impression that you're over at a friend's house for the day. As we sipped our spiced teas and waited for the food, the owner's little boy gleefully careened around the back deck on his Big Wheel tricycle while his grandmother kept watch. Friends of Abdallat's dropped in and out to say hello, conversations in Arabic bubbling across the backyard and mixing with the sweetly scented shisha smoke from those who stayed to indulge in a little of the pipe.
When our food arrived, dusk was just starting to settle, and we could see the lights from Abdallat's Bedouin tent on the other side of the vast property. There must have been another house there at some time, or else the small house that is now Cafe Mawal sat on a huge acreage for many years. Twinkling lights beckoned us to go and sit in the goat-hide tent, but there was food to be eaten at the moment.
Where Cafe Mawal shines is in those items that, to paraphrase my friend, remind her of the stuff her Lebanese father used to grill outside during summers in Dearborn, Michigan. Her kafta kebab was straightforward stuff, but the hot juices from the lightly seasoned beef melded with the soft bread underneath to make a sort of pita-beef fat paste that had the consistency of butter as we ate each bite. The makanek sausages are a bit of a rarer item — I've only ever seen them on the menus at Skewers and Cafe Layal — but wonderful when you can find them, warm from the heat of the grill and the thick flavor of cloves, but brightened instantly with a squeeze of lemon.
The stuffed grape leaves were passable, and certainly better than I've had at most places in Houston, as was the tabbouleh: an ideal balance of parsley and bulgur wheat, again brightened with plenty of lemon juice. But the wheels fell off when it came to the poor, tough bullets of kibbeh, whose meat and rice was double-fried in what tasted like dirty oil, crumbling like old stucco with one bite. Fried foods aren't Cafe Mawal's strong suit, but that doesn't really bother me.
Abraham Abdallat is originally from Jordan and moved to Houston seven years ago. Fans of the Sweet Factory on Hillcroft may recognize him from his old venture, which he sold after a stock market investment went south. But Abdallat wasn't out of the game for long, opening Cafe Mawal last August in an unlikely location that's proven, at least with other Jordanians, to be a success so far.
"You'd never know this place was even back here," my friend Jody wondered aloud one late afternoon. It's kind of magical that way, walking into the foyer of a house that's barely been remodeled to look like a restaurant, older men playing backgammon and women in hijab speaking animatedly over cups of strong Arabic coffee. One wouldn't expect this from a side street in the busy Galleria area. But therein lies the appeal of Houston, after all: its curious way of constantly surprising you.
We stuck mostly to grilled items that evening and were better for it: The hummus was flat and tasted solely of pureed chickpeas, while the falafel had the same overly fried, dirty-tasting-grease issue as the kibbeh. But we found absolutely nothing to complain about when our entrées hit the table.
Her simple dish of beef kebab drove us both crazy as we tried to figure out the alluringly toasty spice blend in the meat. "Is it nutmeg and allspice? Cinnamon? Cloves? It's something warm; can't you taste it?" I hounded her. We finally asked Abdallat when he came by the table to check on us, as he does with each table — repeatedly — every evening. He just chuckled at us.
"It's our own recipe," he said. "A secret." He beamed at us as we gaped at him like fish caught on a line. Dammit. Not even a hint. He quickly changed the topic to sweets — a favorite of his — and soon he and Jody were reminiscing about their favorite Hillcroft sweet shops.
While they talked, I all but destroyed my Mawal-style chicken, two quarters of an entire chicken that had been grilled spread-eagle over an open flame. It looked like shish taouk in an intact form, the light meat seasoned with garlic, paprika and turmeric before being tossed onto a grill. Far from being dried out by the heat, every bite of chicken was juicy and perfect, demanding I use a piece of pita almost as a napkin.
After Abdallat left, we resumed eating the kebab, spreading the tangy lebneh — yogurt cheese — we'd ordered on the side onto each luscious bite of beef. Add some more pita bread into the equation, and we would've had all the fixings for a Jordanian cheeseburger.
Dinner gone, I asked Jody if she'd like to stay for some shisha. She'd never smoked the flavored tobacco before, and the sun set that day on a crash course in double apple shisha and hookah etiquette.
Like coffee, shisha is used in the same capacity in Middle Eastern countries as quaffing a pint with a friend after work or catching up with family at home over wine. As at most Middle Eastern restaurants, there is no alcohol served at Cafe Mawal. But they do serve shisha.
While there are arguments as to whether or not the flavored tobacco is more or less harmful than smoking cigarettes, that hasn't stopped hookahs from becoming increasingly popular across the Middle East. They're just as popular here, where nearly every table has a hookah delivered to it either after or before meals. Cafe Mawal even offers a happy hour deal on its shisha in the late afternoons and early evenings, dropping the price from $10.99 to roughly half that.
One bowl of tobacco will usually last you for half an hour, and it's the ideal way to unwind after eating, enjoying the night air between drags of cooled smoke that fills your mouth like the juices from a fresh Honeycrisp apple. If the coals atop your pipe start to cool, simply take another drag. If they die completely, a man carrying a glowing coal box will be around shortly to get you sorted out. He sits and stokes the coals with a fan and a pair of long-handled tongs while he keeps an eye on the patio and its smokers, taking drags from his own hookah as he watches.
On a recent evening of shisha and coffee, my dining companion had me turn the coffee cup upside down when I was finished. "I'm going to read your fortune," she grinned. Our young Kazakhstani waitress came by to fill up our water glasses and laughed when she saw the inverted cup.
"Reading her fortune?" she chuckled to my friend.
"Trying to," my friend replied. "Let's see." She lifted the cup from the saucer as the waitress and I looked on, intrigued.
It was a muddy mess. I was crestfallen. "You have no future!" cried the waitress in mock anguish.
"I messed up," my friend sheepishly replied. I didn't care. With a belly full of succulent meat, and a patio begging me to stay all evening long and linger over some shisha and coffee, I'd rather live in the moment anyway.
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