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Kale G: And now for something completely different. (Sorry, Monty)
Our travels have taken us far and wide through the various and sundry flavors and feasts different cultures have to offer us, but it’s always fun to find somewhere with something absolutely unique.
In this regard, we present to you: Babani’s. Minnesota’s first (and quite possibly only) Kurdish restaurant. If you go to the site, read the ‘About Babani’s’ section. It’s also printed on their menus if you just go to the restaurant. It’s a worthy piece of the Babani’s lore.
Phil B: Here’s an excerpt for those of you that don’t have time to check it out:
“There was, there wasn’t . . . In a land far away - a great and mighty Kurdish tribe called the Babanis. The Babani men were known throughout the land for their patriotic sentiments, their fierce fighting habits and their sexual prowess. In contrast, the women were said to be kind, forgiving, hardworking and excellent cooks. In this respect the men and women were well suited for one another. And so as one may imagine the tribe flourished spreading children throughtout Kurdistan.”
Whoa. Now that paints quite a mental picture, doesn’t it? Makes you wonder what these folks ate when they weren’t busy fighting or fu--
KG: Whoa now! First things first: Plan your trip. Babani’s is in the middle of downtown St. Paul in a nasty nest of one ways. Many is the trip which was befuddled by trying to figure out just how in the hell you get up the block to this little place without invoking the dark powers of the Elder Gods and thereby dooming the world just for a bowl of Dowjic. Which would be totally worth it, but more on that later. In the meantime, here’s the pro-tip – south on 35E. The 11th Street exit will pop you out right next to the restaurant, just park and you’re there.
Oh, and speaking of parking – bring quarters. It wasn’t an issue for me, because it was Phil’s week to pay (aside to Phil: Take THAT!) so he grudgingly loaded the few quarters he had into the meter – but he didn’t have many and a quarter only buys you ten minutes. I had, tragically, just removed all quarters from my person before we went, so Phil was forced to get change in Babani’s and run out halfway through the meal to feed the meter again.
PB: Hmm, Kale seems to have a touch of Schadenfreude here, i.e. pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. I am guessing that there was a ‘park ‘n pay’ lot nearby, but what the heck: the spot was right there for the taking, and we were in the restaurant less than three minutes after exiting 35E. I advise taking at least $2 worth of quarters with you just in case you get as lucky as we did. We were seated almost immediately upon entering, and proceeded to order lunch.
KG: And what a meal. We began with the Kurdish ‘lemonade’. Kurdish lemonade is made with whole, dried lemons – it’s kind of like an Arnold Palmer, with a very iced tea like quality, but it also has a wonderful spicy flavor that simply is not found anywhere else. One sip and we’re sure you’ll agree – the trip was well worth any headache with the roads.
PB: This was my first time to try a Kurdish lemonade. In a word: Wow! (gotcha -- you thought I was going to say ‘awesome’, didn’t you?) While it looks exactly like iced tea, it certainly doesn’t taste like tea. Imagine the sweetness of honey, counter-balanced by a slightly tart, citric/acidic ‘zing’ that you won’t find in ordinary lemonade. The flavor has some additional layers of complexity that I cannot really describe, so you will have to go try it for yourself. Surgeon General’s Warning: Very Addictive.
KG: But wait – we’re not finished yet. Babani’s also has a selection of soups. I’ve been to Babani’s several times, and I’d love to tell you they’re all good, but the fact is the first time I was there I had the Dowjic and I’ve been lost to it ever since. Dowjic is sort of like a chicken and rice soup – in the way that snapping your fingers is sort of like a fireworks display. There’s chicken and rice, sure – but there’s also basil and lemon and maybe some crushed red pepper and it’s tangy and tingly and sour and savory and it is unlike anything you have ever tried. On the menu it says the tangy bite has kept many a Kurdish traveler from wandering too far and I absolutely believe it. Once you’ve had this soup you’ll find yourself craving it and there will be nothing you can do but hope they’re open and trek across the Twin Cities to get it. It’s that good – or, in a word:
KG: And that may even be inadequate to describe it.
PB: I don’t really have anything to add, except this: Don’t ever eat at Babani’s without ordering some Dowjic. If you do, may you be exiled to a place that is devoid of herbs and spices; a place where they serve only underseasoned, overcooked meat and potatoes every day (sorry, North Dakota).
KG: For entrees, Phil got the Kubay Sawar and I got the Chicken Tawa. You also get a selection of side salad – I got the Jaajic, which is sort of a cousin to Greek tzatziki, in that it’s a blend of yogurt, cucumber, dill and goodness, where Phil got the Tanyata, which is half tabouli and half Jaajic. Phil thought the lemon in the tabouli mixed very well with the cool yogurt of the Jaajic, but I’ll let him tell you all about it.
PB: Well, first maybe we should explain what tabouli is: first, you chop a bunch of parsley (stems and all), garlic, onions and tomatoes; mix it all together with some cooked bulghur (cracked wheat) and lemon juice, then you add salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste. Voila! You have just created tabouli.
Now, here’s my problem with tabouli by itself: the taste and texture of the parsley stems remind me of grass or hay. However, when l mix a bite of tabouli with a little Jaajic, two good things happen: (1) the yogurt softens and blends the parsley flavor/texture in with everything else, and (2) the lemon juice gives the mixture a nice zesty note that I find very pleasing. Apparently one of the owners (Tanya Fuad) agrees with me, since the menu item is named after her.
Enough said about the side salad. Let’s get back to the main entrees.
KG: The Kubay Sawar is nice, but mild dish. It’s just a big ol’ fried dumpling with a light gravy to dip it in. It’s not bad, but it won’t have you jumping out of your seat. It’s kind of like an Indian samosa, only with less spice. It’s not bad by any stretch, but after the soup…
PB: My take on the dish: the wheat dough was somewhere between crisp and chewy, and had a subtle nutty flavor. The filling tasted like ground beef, onions, salt, and pepper -- not that there’s anything wrong with that (sorry, Seinfeld).. The dipping gravy resembled a thick bean soup, perhaps made from pureed chickpeas cooked in a savory broth. The plate had a little wall of basmati rice to separate the gravy from the dumplings and salad. Nicely done, but …
KG: I liked the Chicken Tawa a little better – the chicken is tender to the point of falling off the bone, and the dried limes gives it a nice flavor, but again, it’s not going to jump off the page. The sauce does make the potatoes and rice fantastic, but it’s flavors you’ve had and know. Compared to the unique and exotic drink and soup, you’ll be pleased, but not thrilled.
PB: No surprises -- I second what Kale said.
KG: I want to stress again – the entrees are not bad in any way, shape, or form. But this is a menu that has some simply unbeatable delicacies, and even the good seem ordinary when standing next to the stellar. The fact is, it’s a Lauren Syndrome place – the soup simply towers above the rest of the menu, and next to it the entrees are forced to look on enviously as it gets all the accolades. (For those just joining us, Lauren Syndrome is what afflicts restaurants when they have stellar appetizers which make the entrees seem pale, named after my wife who first ruminated upon it.)
PB: When I ordered the Dowjic as an appetizer, Kale gave me a funny look. It turns out that he always orders the soup with the main course, not before. After lunch, I had to agree that having the soup alongside the other entrees would have elevated them to a new level, making the difference between a good meal and a great meal. Anyhow, now I know -- I still give Babani’s a full plastic fork. Will definitely come back and order things the right way next time.
KG: Babani’s is easily four tines for me – everything is good, and with the soup and the lemonade, some things are amazing. Check their site for hours before you go due to a slightly odd calendar, but you gotta try this place. It’ll make you wonder why there aren’t more Kurdish joints dotting the map.