Kababs (aka kebabs; aka kabobs) seem to be everywhere in the D.C. area. Because I have only been here long enough to sample a handful of different kabab places, I cannot tell you how Al Nakheel, a new kabab place in Vienna, compares to other kabab favorites. "mouse" says that, because of the abundance of good kabab choices, she uses proximity to narrow down the options. Al Nakheel may not change your life, and, if indeed there are other good kabab options, it may not be worth a long trip. But, it is good. At times, very good. And, there are plenty of tasty non-kabab options.
Al Nakheel is a grocery store and cafe in a strip mall in Vienna. An employee there tells me that they have been in business as a grocery store for fifteen years, but only opened the cafe three months ago. After several visits, I can recommend it. The owners clearly care about the food they are serving.
A good sign as soon as I walked in was the number of people devoted to preparing food. Despite the small number of customers (just me at one point), there are at least three guys in the kitchen, and several more butchering meat. Another good sign is the high number of Middle-Eastern people leaving one evening with large bags stuffed with take-out food, perhaps for a make-shift Ramadan feast.
The Al Nakheel Kabab sandwich is rolled-up pita bread enclosing a kabab of ground beef, ground lamb, garlic and parsley. The sandwich was also stuffed with a thin layer of hummus, as well as divine pickled turnips. On the side, as is the case with all sandwiches there, were tasty olives, more pickled turnips, and a small salad of lettuce. Good flavors all around. Even the limp iceberg lettuce leaves were tasty, swimming in the olivey, Middle-Eastern dressing.
The pickles deserve special mention because despite their humble supporting role in many of the items on the menu, they are wonderful. The turnips and cucumbers are beautifully pickled on the premises. The mouthwatering vinegary tang is irresistible. The crunchy flesh of the vegetables makes them fun to eat, too.
Labneh is a spreadable yogurt cheese with a mild tang. The menu promised that the cheese would be served on markouk, a somewhat labor-intensive bread popular in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Instead, it came, on the same bread as the other kabab sandwiches -- bread that, to me, more closely resembles pita than markouk. Again, it is stuffed with the ever-present pickles. A satisfying light lunch.
The Lamb Kabab sandwich is grilled marinated lamb rolled up in pita bread, with onions, hummus, and pickles. The lamb is not at all "high", but still sufficiently flavorful to alert the taste-buds that it is indeed lamb, and not beef.
The grape leaves are good. They are made on the premises, hand-rolled with rice, parsley, mint, oil and LOTS of lemon juice. Very lemony. A light and refreshing start to a meal.
The Kabseh, which the menu calls "our specialty," is a platter of a quarter chicken (or, if you prefer, lamb) served over rice. Before ordering it, I was concerned about the quality of the rice because it hardly appears anywhere on the menu. After one bite, it was clear that the rice is certainly no afterthought. It is rich, with lots of butter and a heady saffron flavor. The chicken flesh has a smoky poultry flavor, and the skin is smattered with Middle-Eastern spices that I couldn't quite place. The platter comes with deftly seasoned tabouleh. The burgul is accompanied by well-proportioned parsley, tomato (a bit mealy), mint, onions, lemon juice, and olive oil.
The Makanek sandwich, perhaps my favorite item so far, is house-made sausage of lamb, pine nuts, cumin, cardamom, all-spice, garlic, and cloves. The sausage has the dense texture typical of the style. It is again served in pita bread with pickles, tomatoes, and tahini sauce. An exciting combination of tastes and textures.
The Katayef is the most drive-worthy item at Al Nakheel right now. This dessert, traditionally served only during Ramadan, is not always easy to find. NOTE: If you are interested, GO SOON, because it is only available at Al Nakheel for the next week or so, until Ramadan ends. While there are many different ways to make it, Al Nakheel starts with a small disc of spongy bread/pastry, which is like a cross between a silver dollar pancake and Ethiopian injera (closer to a pancake than injera). The pancake is then rolled over, and pinched at one end to form a half-moon shape, not unlike a canoli. It is then stuffed with whipped cream and topped with crushed pistachios. Perhaps because I got mine to-go, it did not come with the traditional rose-water syrup or honey. Still, I corrected this problem with honey of my own at home. Delicious! And addictive, too. Worth its year-long anticipation.
A meat pie (85 cents) from the bakery has been the only disappointment, but it may have suffered from the fact that I couldn't heat it up. The well-seasoned ground meat filling couldn't rescue the cold, dry, chewy crust.
Al Nakheel Kabab and Cafe
340 Maple Ave. West
Vienna, VA 22180
(703) 938 4220