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Review: Iraqi dishes star at new Medical Center restaurant

November 26, 2018

Note: This is a Just a Taste review, which the Express-News does soon after a restaurant or bar opens to give our first impressions.

Babil Cafe is not your average falafel shop. Sure, the newcomer near San Antonio’s bustling Medical Center serves up many of the usual suspects — gyros, hummus, kebabs and the like — but dig a little deeper, and you find an Iraqi soul food joint.

Baghdad native Hafedh Hammood and his family opened Babil Cafe a couple months ago in the former home of Z Mediterranean Cuisine. The restaurant looks very similar to its predecessor, with most of the decor and the buffet line still in place.

That’s until you show up on a Sunday, when a simmered lamb’s head — tongue, teeth, eyes and all — is served. If you’re feeling extravagant, a whole roasted lamb and a kingly spread of accompaniments is available with 24 hours’ notice.

Babil Cafe was born out of Hammood’s recipe for fresh tandoor-baked Iraqi-style flatbread. He spent the past decade making and selling the tender loaves (and other traditional dishes) to homesick Iraqis in San Antonio before opening the restaurant. Now that he’s got a storefront, Hammood’s secret is out, and we’re all the better fed for it.

On the menu: Babil Cafe does many of the Mediterranean staples well. On the mazza platter ($11.99), falafel is deeply seasoned and light in texture, kibbeh is delicately stuffed and perfectly fried, and baba ghanoush has a nicely balanced flavor of roasted eggplant and citrus.

A trio of kebabs on the mix grill plate ($15.99) includes slightly tough but flavorful lamb, remarkably juicy cubes of chicken and a memorable coarse sausage of minced beef and lamb seasoned with sumac. A side of tabbouleh is composed primarily of chopped parsley speckled with bulgur wheat and rosy pomegranate seeds for a light and flavorful version of the salad that’s often served as a heavy and dull dish made mainly of leaden cracked wheat.

Hammood’s magnificent bread was swapped out for a forgettable grocery store-style pita and lackluster slivers of beef in a gyro ($6.99) that couldn’t be saved by a nice herby tzatziki sauce. This order was the low point of my visit.

That lull was shortlived though, when an order of the Iraqi favorite mansaf ($13.99), one of the restaurant’s fixed daily special items, arrived. It’s a showy plate — the name mansaf means large tray or dish in Arabic — of fluffy golden rice topped with two large portions of braised lamb. The star of the show was a generous scattering of crisp fried almonds, and the whole thing got sopped in a thin sauce tasting of yogurt and herbs.

Another dish that will pull Iraqi heartstrings is the qaimar with honey ($7.99). It’s a plate of silken and slightly clotted cream that diners spoon over a flaky pastry and then drizzle with honey from a bear-shaped bottle. It’s a sweet and comforting breakfast order, and one I haven’t seen anywhere else in the city.

If you already like the flavors often lumped under the banner of “Middle Eastern food,” you’ll probably like Babil Cafe. If you want to develop an appreciation for what makes the cuisines of that region’s many countries and cultures distinct, you’ll probably love it.

Location: 8132 Fredericksburg Road, 210-290-8003, babilcafesa.com, Facebook: Babil Cafe.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Paul Stephen is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | pstephen@express-news.net | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen

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