Friday, June 27, 2008

Mint Cafe

Mint Cafe has some tough competition. This cheery little Middle Eastern sidewalk cafe on Sage near the Galleria is within a few miles of Houston's best and most popular Middle Eastern restaurants:

Mary'z -- possibly Houston's best traditional Middle Eastern food

Cafe Mezza -- possibly Houston's best contemporary Middle Eastern fusion food

Dimassi's -- a good quality and extremely popular Middle Eastern buffet

Although Mint is not better than Mary'z or Cafe Mezza, I go to Mint more than its competitors for a few reasons. First, now that Cafe Mezza is no longer BYOB, Mint is the best BYOB Middle Eastern restaurant in town.

Second, there are a handful of dishes at Mint Cafe that are better than any similar dishes in town:

Pies ($3.49): The little appetizer called "pies" (pictured above) includes a spinach pie and a cheese pie that are more like crispy spring rolls. But the star of the dish is the meat pie. The ground beef is mixed with pine nuts and an intriguing blend of spices.

Foul ($5.49): Sold elsewhere as ful mudammas, this is nothing more than a bowl of fava beans with olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. The beans swim in a thick sea of oil and juice. It is the bracing acidic quality of the lemon juice transforms this dish from an oily bowl of beans to something special. I don't eat these beans with a fork. It is more fun to scoop up the beans and juices with triangles of pita.

Kid's menu Kafta burger ($5.99): Although this is one of the tastiest burgers in town, I only get to eat it when I bring Anonymous Child. It is only on Mint Cafe's kid's menu. She thinks it is pretty good, but I marvel at the unusual spices in the ground beef and at how well they work with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

This burger may not appeal to purists who prefer medium rare meat with lots of juice. This burger is well done, and seems to be made from lean meat. But it is the spices that elevate it to something completely different.

Israeli couscous ($2.49): The pea-sized balls of pasta are larger than ordinary couscous. They have an al dente texture and are flavored with spices such as cinnamon.

Other dishes may not beat all the competition, but are quite good. The eggplant in baba ghanouge is appropriately smoky and flavorful.

The chicken in the chicken kabob has a nice marinade and is served with a pungent garlic sauce. But it doesn't compare with Mary'z flavorful marinade.

Mint also does a nice job with lamb chops. And tabouli is made correctly with a lot of fresh parsley and lemon juice.

Only a few dishes are disappointing. The fattoush salad is not as interesting as versions I have tried elsewhere. I find the hummus dull, but then I usually find hummus dull.

Mint Cafe is a family operation. Mom works in the kitchen. A son waits tables. Many customers are regulars. Many customers eat at the sidewalk tables outside. A few customers even eat outside with their dogs.

It's that kind of place.


Rubiao said...

If you find yourself in the neighborhood sans child, the kafta burger at Cafe Mezza is delicious. I think it is the most consistent casual restaurant in town. Every time I've been (for years), everything on the table has been perfect. Its hard not to order the shish tawuk or the mango chicken, but that burger is something special.

sheeats said...

It is a family-run place; you're correct about that. A good friend of mine used to date the owner's son. Every time we went, the place was packed with their extended family and friends. It seems to have changed a bit since then, though -- more non-Lebanese folks in the joint these days. :)