George Sarikhanian, the Armenian-Lebanese owner of Cafe Rita (along with his eponymous wife, Rita), doesn't act remotely surprised when I tell him that his baba ghanoush is the best I've ever had. "Of course it is," he exclaims good-naturedly in his thick Lebanese accent. "Why you think we have so many customers? We make such good food, everyone comes to eat it! We busy all the time!"
This should also come as no surprise to Houston Press readers, as Cafe Rita was voted Best Middle Eastern Food in 2007. Inside their tiny, wood-paneled restaurant on Dairy Ashford, George and Rita proudly display the plaque listing this achievement alongside tiny newspaper clippings, online reviews that someone has printed out on a color printer and sun-faded pictures of Beirut.
George and Rita, who've known each other since they were two years old, grew up in Beirut although they are ethnically Armenian. Their food reflects a similar pastiche of heritages. Although most of the food is traditionally Levantine, there is also lavash alongside pita bread, a case of pillowy-looking labneh and plenty of hummus and tabbouleh made with an Armenian flair.
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SHOW ME HOW
In the case of the baba ghanoush (called mutabal in Armenia), I'm convinced that what makes it the best is Rita's distinctive Armenian method of making it.
Unlike more mainstream versions of baba ghanoush, the Armenian version mashes the roasted eggplant -- the main ingredient -- instead of pureeing it. Chunks of smoky eggplant catch on your pita bread as you dip into it with an unexpected yet welcomed heaviness. And although the creaminess is retained (through the use of brightly-flavored tahini paste), the result is a much heartier baba ghanoush, which is less of a dip or mezze and more akin to a side dish. Finally, the addition of finely chopped onions and a sprinkling of cumin give it an added bite that you won't find in any other baba ghanoush around town.
As George scooped some baklava into a to-go box for me after I'd finished my lunch, he shook his head and chuckled. "You know, you say baba ghanoush is best here. He --" George gestures to a man sitting in the corner, reading a newspaper "-- say the hummus is best here than anywhere else. Perhaps we have best of everything after all."
--- Katharine Shilcutt