I hate to say I told you so, but the new-and-improved Abdallah's is further evidence of my theory that Middle Eastern spots turn out the most consistently good food among Houston's ethnic restaurants. Abdallah's current chef-in-residence is not only a magician with vegetables, he's expanding the local Middle Eastern repertoire much as DiMassi's, Yildizlar and Cafe Lili have of late. Once you've sampled such exotica as Abdallah's tomato salad or the incandescent spinach with black-eyed peas, it's hard to content yourself with the familiar hummus-tabouli-baba ghanouj trilogy that was once about as far as Middle Eastern side dishes went in this town.
Save for a mural of snowcapped peaks framing a tall cedar of Lebanon, Abdallah's bakery-cafe is as plain and spare as it ever was -- a utilitarian, self-serve world of fluorescent lights, red plastic table coverings and various species of brick, both real and pretend. But with Samir Khalilieh's advent in the kitchen, some amusing visual grace notes have crept in: a whole garlic bulb dangles impudently from an overhead menu board, and signs advertising the day's specials sprout from fat brown onions, jaunty testimony to Khalilieh's affinity for the vegetable kingdom.
The fruits of his labors are spread out alluringly in a daily smorgasbord of vegetable platters loaded with depth and finesse; they bear everything from gentle celadon rounds of sauteed zucchini to lush red wheels of fresh tomato strewn with boisterous quantities of garlic and green chile, an offering as cheerfully aggressive as anything you'd find in a Thai restaurant.
Abdallah's spinach alone justifies a visit: rich and tart, deeply, resonantly garlicked, the oniony minced greens cohabit with pearly grains of bulgur wheat and pastel black-eyed peas. The first time I tasted them, an involuntary "Wow!" escaped my lips; when I hauled a friend in later for a sample, he had the same startled reaction.
The best way to attack the day's nine or so choices is with Abdallah's entertaining vegetarian plate, a festival of pita mini-sandwiches escorted by several salads and dips. The half-dozen sandwiches are the most fun: small surprise packages layered with lively, tomatoey green beans gigged with big toes of garlic; or a rich stew of peppery eggplant and squash mined with whole chickpeas; or a dice of tartly marinated potatoes singing with garlic and cilantro. Everything's served at a picnic-style room temperature, so the flavors are at their fullest. And because Abdallah's has been baking pita since l976, the bread that wraps up these delicacies is admirably soft and fresh.
My friend was so taken with Abdallah's earthy mixture of lentils and rice that he rebuked me for nabbing its last remaining tendrils of mahogany-hued, caramelized onion; I felt sheepish but unrepentant. A soft, thick porridge of tomato-laced cracked wheat struck me as the Middle Eastern version of Spanish rice -- pleasant-enough filler, period. But delicately browned cauliflower, fried quickly without a batter, showed off this vegetable to fine, simple advantage.
The vegetarian plate doesn't stop there. A mound of good, heavily parsleyed tabouli salad -- very green and just lemony enough -- comes as part of its standard equipment. There's a sharp, briny grape leaf stuffed with rice; a bowl of soupy, house-made yogurt punctuated with cucumbers and dried mint; and a sphere of the fried bean mixture called falafel. (It turned up missing on my plate, but I was so happy I didn't mind at all.) Also part of the bargain are triangles of a feta-cheese bread more austere than Droubi's exuberant version and a zaatar bread whose lemony-dusty topping of dried thyme is an acquired taste.
You get tiny cups of chickpea and eggplant dips, too, their seasoning so expertly calibrated that you'll wish you had more. Go ahead and wallow in the stuff: a generous bowl of baba ghanouj costs only $3.49, and a better version of this eggplant spread is hard to imagine. Splendidly balanced lemon, sesame, garlic and smoky eggplant flavors set off a superb texture that manages to combine satisfying coarseness with utter creaminess. And the unusually sophisticated hummus fairly bursts with the nutty character of sesame. Add a couple of freshly baked pita loaves, and you have some serious eating in front of you.
Should you develop a fixation on certain of Abdallah's vegetables, the vegetarian plate's sandwich samples may leave you unsated. Fortunately there's a four-vegetable lunch special that's a great deal at $3.95. Its alleged "small" portions are what would pass for normal-sized in most places, and its components are so satisfying that meat will probably be the furthest thing from your mind.
Still, the meat-and-potatoes crowd can count on assorted entrees du jour. The flying garnish of whole green chiles and lemon wedges on herbed, broiled chicken halves must be seen to be appreciated (toothpicks hold them aloft). And connoisseurs of honest steam-table fare will want to make the acquaintance of ground-beef kafta with sliced potatoes in a cinnamon-scented bath: it's meatloaf blessed with spunk. I've always like Abdallah's falafel sandwiches, too, with their furbelows of brined, magenta turnip, red tomato and sesame sauce; they're just bitter enough to seem pleasantly foreign.
Dessert? Well, yes. Abdallah's concocts its own voluptuous, barely sweetened cream filling and layers it between crisp, fragile layers of shredded wheat. A ladling of rose-water-perfumed syrup brings it all together into one supremely alien whole. A peculiar look crossed my friend's face after only two bites. "This," he declared gravely, "is like a whole new sexual experience." I may have chortled, but I saw his point.
We tempered the interesting strangeness with tiny, toadstool-sized cups of Turkish coffee that we poured ourselves from a long-handled brass pot. It was thick and silty and strong -- and unsweetened, too, thanks to the solicitous counter woman who took the trouble to ask if we wanted sugar. Very civilized.
The counterwomen happen to be one of the attractions here. They are liable to tout the healthful, low-cholesterol aspects of the vegetable array with becoming enthusiasm, or tuck a few extra goodies into a to-go order, especially at the end of the day's business. They're a softening presence in the midst of Abdallah's impassive maleness, its ceaseless parade of Middle Eastern guys-about-town presided over by the serious, silent chef in his buttoned-up, double-breasted whites, and the handsome, silver-haired owner.
That's him, Mr. Abdallah himself, sitting in a corner eating a bowl of soup while his regulars huddle intently over a game of backgammon. The skitter of dice and the slap of chips fills the air. Customers approach to pay their respects; the soup dwindles in its bowl. It's driving me crazy, that soup; I practically put a crick in my neck trying to figure out what's in it. It's not on the menu, of course. Isn't that always the way?
I can't hold on to my discontent very long, though. Not when, as the humorist Calvin Trillin's small daughter once put it so eloquently, my tongue is smiling.
Abdallah's, 3939 Hillcroft, 952-4747
vegetarian plate, $7.95;
four-vegetable lunch special, $3.95