Following up on an emailed tip from a shy 'hound, one evening I stopped at MidEast Deli after confirming that it would still be open at 7:30pm. It was indeed still open at that time, however, the deli foods were depleted. Admittedly, I was annoyed that I couldn't get anything I wanted. Yet, the couple (I assume) who run the place are so cute, I couldn't stay angry for long. The husband didn't seem to speak much English, but he was very sweet and tried hard to make me happy offering me a steak sandwich. The wife said she didn't have any more hummus, baba ghanough, stuffed grapes leaves, etc. and offered to heat up a frozen spinach pie. I declined both and asked if they had more at lunch time. She replied, "sometimes." This seemed like a rather mysterious answer, making me unsure whether I'd been understood, but I made a mental note to come back.
Looking around, the groceries here are focused pretty specifically on Lebanon and the neighboring Levant countries rather than pan-Arab or general Middle Eastern. The lighted sign on the freezer case actually says "Lebanese frozen food" and was stocked with several kinds of Lebanese sausages from Michigan as well as ziplock bags full of small homemade turnovers and pies made of spinach, meat, or cheese and sundries.
I went back this week at lunch time and was again the only customer. I ordered a kibbee sandwich, and my heart sank when she pulled a bag out of the freezer. I stuck with it figuring I'd rather try sub-par food than go away empty-handed again. I also asked for a side of baba ghanough. There was none this day, so I settled for a little hummus and some tabouli.
After the balls of kibbee were defrosted and heated in the microwave, I watched her assemble the sandwich and things started to look up. She cut some thin slices of red onion, layering them on the butterflied and spread-open pita bread with the kibbee. The long slices of pickled cucumber were aligned just so and interspersed with the tomatoes. She inspected each leaf of parsley as she tore it from its stem, likewise grooming the individual leaves of mint she selected. These were placed at precise and discrete intervals. Then she added some of the thick sour cream sauce, inspected her handiwork and added a tiny dab more on one edge. After hand-tearing some crunchy iceberg lettuce for the final garnish, she rolled up the sandwich tightly, wrapped it in paper with a tight twist at each end, and cut the thick log in half. She told me to leave the paper on and tear as I go.
I took this back to my desk where it sat for a good half hour before I had a chance to try it. The bread had steamed from being enclosed in foil and the kibbee were barely warm. Still, this sandwich tasted great. Each bite uncovered a different flavor sensation, thanks to the meticulous assemblage, and everything was in just the right proportion. I think the pickles were homemade.
Compared to Habibi's kibbee, these were much more flavorful and not dried out despite being frozen. The ground beef core under the fried wheat shell was loose and tasty with bits of nicely browned onion and toasted pinenuts. The extra care to carmelize these simple ingredients to bring out all their flavor was much appreciated by me.
To my palate, the hummus was just about perfect too in its balance of tahini, lemon, salt, oil, and garlic seasoning the chickpea puree. This was silky smooth, whereas I prefer a coarser style, yet I can't quibble at all with the fresh taste. The tabouli was fine also.
I had eyed the Mason jars in the deli case. The woman told me that they were stuffed baby eggplants that she puts up herself. After this lunch, I wish I'd shelled out the five bucks to try them too. I'm even more sorry that I didn't buy some of her baklava.
I'm hoping that others who have tried the food here can fill us in on the story. My sense is that their business might be primarily grocery with some catering work and that walk-ins for prepared food are few and far between. She only had about a pint of hummus on hand at 1pm. When I asked for a small size, she had trouble finding the small plastic containers to pack the hummus and tabouli. Maybe she just makes a little extra whenever she gets a catering order. Whatever the deal is, I'll be happy to try whatever it is that might be available for sale next time. The food is prepared with loving attention. My lunch was $6 and change, including tax.
MidEast Deli is in the historic Irvington District, just off the intersection of Fremont and Washington. It's just a couple blocks away from Habibi, the other Lebanese place. MidEast would be my choice of the two despite the randomness of the food offerings and lack of seating. The front of the free-standing small store just says Grocery and Deli, I think. There's a plastic table and a couple chairs outside the door.
MidEast Deli & Grocery
4128 Bay Street
(up the street from Pearl's Cafe)