The last stop on my summer-long exploration of the Silicon Valley culminated in San Mateo, within earshot of the 101 freeway, at Aladdin Gourmet, which has got you covered for any hookah, produce or mesquite-grilled kebab needs. The owner hails from Jordan and presides over an establishment that’s showcased pan Arab cuisine and ingredients for approximately two decades, and apparently still does it well.
An initial scout revealed shelves stocked with some unusual items, including yellow dates on the stem, bags of Spicely and Sadaf spices like cardamom, sumac and anise, teas, Turkish coffee, jars of grape leaves and all sorts of grains and beans. Their pita isn’t made in house, and they source basturma and soujouk elsewhere, but at least it’s Ohanyan, a reliable brand from Fresno, and they do have an olive bar, probably long before Whole Foods ever thought to do it.
During my second (full-force) visit, the chef began the day by making a massive batch of falafel, including chickpeas flecked green with cilantro, parsley and jalapeño, along with chlorophyll-free onion, allspice, salt and sesame seeds, formed into orbs and fried to order.
Falafel Plate ($8.99) came with five pieces of lightly fried falafel, which were above average, almost creamy inside, with thin sheathes. Just like pizza and French fries, fresh falafel is best eaten immediately, otherwise, the balls lose their chi. The falafel were supposed to come with sesame tahini dressing. That didn’t happen, but they did adjoin pickled cucumbers and radishes, Kalamata olives, shredded iceberg lettuce and a choice of three sides. My picks consisted of muhamara, a dryer than usual, surprisingly pomegranate-free dip of crushed walnuts, garlic, red pepper and spices; mujadara, earthy brown lentils and rice topped with sweet sauteed onions; and Dolma Arabic, which not only had the rice, tomatoes and herbs of its Greek counterpart, but also hosted garbanzo beans and benefited from a soak in tangy lemon juice, but still appeared fairly dense.
Foul Mudammas ($3.99 small) is routinely eaten for breakfast in the Middle East and varies quite a bit from country to country. Aladdin’s version featured a chunky slurry of minced fava beans, parsley, garlic, salt, lemon and olive oil. The creamy sesame tahini dressing may have been missing from the falafel, but it was in full effect on top of the stew, along with a single salty Kalamata olive and mildly spicy red pepper puree.
Halva Bar ($1.69) involved a gritty rectangle of sesame paste lined with crushed almonds and sticky milk chocolate. Hilbe Cake ($1.99) didn’t fare quite so well. They soaked cracked wheat in honey, yogurt and sesame, but the sheet was messy, fairly dry and not especially enjoyable.
The bakery also sold baklava, beef, spinach, chicken and cheese pies, and copious amounts of flatbreads. Strangely, they also sell pizza, but at least they topped some versions with falafel, zatar and moussaka, all clearly derivative and interesting. Aladdin featured a wide variety of dishes and flavors, and considering the low cost of entry, it’s conceivable that it would be a semi-regular stop for me, if I were ever a Silicon Valley resident. At this point, you’re probably thinking, what, no genie reference? No need.