Party Favors

A quartet of places offer creative solutions to potluck-season woes

Abu Nader Deli &Amp; Grocery
2095 Como Ave. St. Paul
651.647.5391

Capital Deli
291 W. University Ave., St. Paul
651.209.8388

Jasmine Deli
2532 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
612.870.4700

Capital Deli co-owner Vanh Ratsamy, pictured with the answer to your potluck prayers
Jayme Halbritter
Capital Deli co-owner Vanh Ratsamy, pictured with the answer to your potluck prayers

West Indies Soul
625 University Ave., St. Paul
651.665.0115

Look at yourself, Toots, you're a mess. Your face is as long as the drive to Brainerd, and twice as gray. Your wallet's thinner than the premise you'd need to get a dating-show starlet into a waiting hot tub. If you were a Hollywood producer, that is. Which you're not. So you don't even get the hot tub. You're just a Minnesotan, so all you get is the yawning, groaning, unfillable maw of Holiday Party Season, which howls to you across the frosty plains, in language as chilling as it is plain, and says, Hey there, what do you think you're going to bring to the potluck, eh?

You're not stopping at Byerly's. That much is clear--clear as the echoing sound your fridge makes when you peer into its emptiness and whistle. But you're not going to Cub, or Lunds, or Rainbow, or even the Wedge, oh no. Because all of your friends shop the same places you do, and they know what these places have, and all you are going to admit if you go to the local grocery store on the way to the potluck is defeat.

Because of your curse. That's right, your curse. Too much taste, too much intelligence, too little time. Face it, Toots, if you didn't have your curse, you'd just show up at the party with that old box of toaster strudel that froze itself to the side of the icebox a few years ago, and you'd say, "Toaster strudel! Better than starving." But you can't do that. Too much taste.

Good thing you've got me on staff, that's all I can say. Because I'm gonna tell you a few things, a few secrets, a few off-the-record tricks that'll speak louder than a .45 when there are five aces on the table, and be twice as tasty. That's right, pay attention and watch me turn all your potlucks into cakewalks.

For instance, have you ever had the baba ghanoush from Abu Nader? Fresh, silky, edged with a roasty hint of fire, and made spirited with a shot of garlic, this is an eggplant dip for the ages. Abu Nader is a little Middle Eastern deli attached to a tiny convenience store on the corner of Como and Raymond, and if you venture in behind the extremely unprepossessing door you will find Bishara Ailabouni and his wife Izabelle cooking the family recipes they brought over from Israel 40 years ago, when this family of Christian Palestinian Arabs emigrated.

The level of from-scratch that the Ailabounis achieve is exhausting to contemplate: Parsley for their fantastic, light, and lemony tabbouli is cut by hand, because the Ailabounis believe it makes for a better texture and flavor than food-processor cutting. They are right. Spinach pies ($2.29) are made with hand-cut fresh vegetables too, cooked till they get a glossy green sheen, but not until the young leaves turn dark and fall apart. The spinach is combined with onions and a bit of spicy pepper seasoning so that the filling makes an earthy but vegetal contrast to the nutty homemade bread dough it's tucked into--yum. Other pie fillings include a terrific spicy pepper and feta, or a very mellow beef and pine nut.

Grape leaves (3 for $1.49) are among the best in town, homemade, tomato-touched and just as rich and intense as lovingly handmade grape leaves should be. If you've only had cheap restaurant grape leaves, filled with nothing but rice and old oregano, you simply have to try these. They will change everything. The Ailabounis make their own pita too, big, soft, handmade breads, and since they keep restaurant hours (open six days a week from 11:00 a.m. till 9:00 p.m., closed on Sundays) they're an ace in the hole when you need something on the way to your party.

Tabbouli and baba ghanoush are always fresh, and available in the little deli case beneath the cash register in half-pound take-out containers for $2.99; as are the regular, palm-sized spinach, feta, or meat pies, which can be cut in half for finger food. However, please note that if you call in advance the Ailabounis will make a two-pound dip container for you, bake special bite-size pies, or even, if you have a big order, come in special on a Sunday to bake fresh pita just for you. Because the food at Abu Nader is not merely delicious and not merely convenient, it's the product of folks whose passionate hobby is cooking, and who just like to share.

"My wife is a pharmacist, not a cook," Bishara Ailabouni explained in a phone interview, "but she loves to cook. The idea we started out with was to make people happy, to share what we do, to socialize and have a good time. Everything we eat comes out of [the restaurant kitchen.] I go down to Chicago every six weeks because I don't trust them to send the good ingredients to me. I want the best quality, and don't want to wait for it to come up here. The menu still has our prices from when we opened three years ago. We're not here to make much profit; we don't look at things from a business point of view, but from a health and quality point of view. Whatever we do, however much it costs, however long it takes, it's worth it to eat the best and serve the best."

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