Local Spotlight

Cafe Mawal: Eating Outdoors Has Never Been So Attractive

Cafe Mawal -- the subject of this week's cafe review -- is practically built for al fresco dining. Sure, you can grab a seat inside amongst the older folks playing backgammon or sit and stare at the flat-screen TV mounted to one wall, but why would you want to?

Outside, you'll find a multitude of different dining options: on the simple concrete patio outside, near the man who stokes the coals for the hookahs that most people smoke in the evenings; on the broad wooden deck under an expanse of oak trees; or inside a traditional Bedouin tent that sits away from the main house. When it starts getting hotter, you can be assured that the tent will see plenty of business. For now, I prefer the deck.

And the food at Cafe Mawal is equally meant for consumption in the great outdoors. This is backyard grilling food at its finest. Mawal-style chicken butterflied atop a grill, sending up stomach-warping, groan-inducing scents of paprika and turmeric and garlic. Kabobs of beef next to slowly caramelizing onions. Little makanek sausages, the soft lamb on the inside protected by a slightly crunchy exterior crisped up on the grill.

If only it had cold beer, Cafe Mawal might be the best patio in Houston.

Alas, Cafe Mawal is Jordanian and therefore staunchly Muslim, so there's no booze to be had. But there is shisha.

At night, most people seem to be at Cafe Mawal to smoke shisha and catch up over the light, fruity scent of the smoke and a few glasses of Arabic tea. You can get a hookah for yourself for $10.99, which is easily split between two people. The flavored tobacco inside will last you for about 30 minutes, depending on how quickly you smoke. And although I always order apple everywhere I go, there are other flavors available, such as grape or mint.

In a sense, shisha and tea (or the super-strong Arabic coffee, if you're up for it), are a replacement in certain Muslim environments for cigarettes and alcohol. There are arguments surrounding the health benefits and/or impacts of all four; far too many, in fact, to list here.

I will say this, however: Shisha certainly tastes a lot better than cigarettes do, and it won't make you stink of nicotine for the rest of the night. And there's a lot to be said for closing out a meal with a relaxing half-hour of talking with friends, letting the taste of apple flood your mouth and exhaling the smoke back out into the night air.

For more photos from Cafe Mawal, check out our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt