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Best Middle Eastern Restaurant: Kassab's 

The 2005 Picky Eater Olympics were recently held in Lebanon. Sort of ...

 

 

Kassab's, at 12th and East Carson streets in the South Side, is a delightful place to lunch at 2 p.m. on a sunny Saturday. I brought a family of picky eaters, in part to prove that any Middle Eastern restaurant that can overcome my family's various "food weirdnesses" has to be the best. 

 

We'd not been to the "new" Kassab's, but have fond memories of the old place, which was located on the corner of 10th and East Carson. The high ceilings, open spaces and colorful mural-in-progress by Bob Ziller in the new restaurant are a far cry from the former location, with its uncomfortable, mismatched furniture, hospital-like fluorescent lighting and lack of seating. Then again, it wasn't the atmosphere that endeared us to the old Kassab's, but its prices and quality cuisine. 

 

Once, long ago in our relationship's steamier infancy, my husband and I had time for either a nooner in his Mount Washington apartment, or take-away from Kassab's ... and we chose Kassab's. It's that good. Several years later, with children in tow, we were about to find out how Kassab's has changed, since naturally, we have too. (Nowadays, I'd choose the nooner.)

 

I submit for your approval one husband: hater of tomatoes, onions and anything that qualifies as having "weird textures." On the other side of the circular wooden table sits the hyper-competitive 10-year-old daughter, whose tastes are so unpredictably discriminating I am loathe to serve macaroni and cheese. Our 18-month-old baby, seated in a wooden high chair, babbles happily at the elegant stained-glass lamps overhead, oblivious to the culinary showdown.

 

We appreciate the new family-friendliness, but dispense with the children's menu and order a gyro platter, "spicy fish" (baked salmon cooked with cilantro, tahini and some other things I suspect husband won't appreciate), shawarma (pita wrap with spiced shredded beef and vegetables), stuffed grape leaves and an innocuous steak pita wrap. When the fragrant food arrives, the contest is on, but not before I notice the increased portion sizes, which are larger than in years past. That's OK ... so am I.

 

Around us, college students gossip, a young man works on his laptop, a group of offbeat baby boomers laugh into their water glasses; they clearly have no idea they're witnessing the Picky Eater Olympics.

 

"They look like pickles," complains daughter about the grape leaves. I included the grape leaves as a demonstration of Kassab's friendliness to vegetarians (even vegans!) but she won't try them. The first round goes to husband, who not only tries them but also says, "They're more citrus-y than expected, but good."

 

The gyro platter is a hit, though daughter twists her mouth up scornfully and crinkles her nose at the cucumber sauce. Husband steers around onions and tomatoes as though they are landmines, dabs his face with his napkin and announces he loves it because the meat is "cooked so well, they stopped just before it was burnt, and that's the best." Baby, whose mouth is full of pita bread, points to the platter and yells "MEAT!" Round two goes to daughter, for taking a bigger risk.

 

The shawarma, though received negatively by both picky eaters, disappears quickly from my plate. The fourth round, with the steak wrap, is also tied, because everyone likes it. Baby drags a sautéed onion across the table for a while before clamoring toward the gyro meat again. The final round of the Picky Eater Olympics concerns the spicy fish, of which husband says, "They didn't overwhelm the fact that it's salmon." Daughter, not husband, objects to tahini. 

 

The Picky Eater Olympics is difficult to judge. Daughter is clearly the pickier eater, and took bigger risks, while husband tried everything and even liked some unexpected things. Daughter demands to know who won. "Aw, hell," I exclaim, "let's let the French judge decide." Besides, finding a foreign restaurant that's family-friendly, beautiful to look at, and with good food that pleases everyone means that technically, we all won.

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