I used to frequent Ali Baba when it was a pizza place that happened to also serve Turkish food. This was my first visit to the restaurant in its current incarnation, and I was completely disoriented by the fancy tapestries and uniformed waiters. They haven’t totally lost touch with their proletarian roots – the napkins and placemats are paper – but it’s a world away from the hole-in-the-wall I remember.
Fortunately, the lahmacun haven’t changed a bit. Between the tricks of memory, and the tendency of restaurants to go downhill over time, it’s always a gift when something tastes exactly the way you remembered it. After multiple disappointing lahmacun in the Bay Area, I’d started to wonder if I was actually romanticizing the Ali Baba lahmacun, but no – it really is that good. The lamb was perfectly seasoned, finely ground to a silky texture. The pizza parlor pedigree showed in the crust, blistered and charred, with enough elasticity to not crack when the flatbread was folded in half, with slices of tomato, raw onion, and cilantro inside.
I also ordered the manti, which I had not had at Ali Baba before. These were good – the marble-sized lamb dumplings had a satisfyingly chewy texture and were dressed with warm yogurt and a drizzle of tomato-based sauce, with dried mint and sumac sprinkled decoratively over the top. I prefer a butter and chili sauce (Sahara East used to have a great version, although the recent terrible reviews on Yelp dissuaded me from chasing after that taste memory), and more mint (the dumplings tasted flat until I hit a spoonful with mint, and the decorative sprinkling wasn't quite enough to distribute over the whole dish). They weren't good enough to inspire longing from the other coast the way the lahmacun were, but that's a lot to ask... I'm just grateful that the lahmacun lived up to my memory of them.
Pic 1: Lahmacun
Pic 2: Manti
Ali Baba Turkish Cuisine
212 E 34th St, New York, NY 10016