One Saturday last autumn in the parking lot of the Maronite church on University Avenue in Minneapolis, we had a transcendant Lebanese sandwich: grilled bread stuffed with meaty eggplant, crispy onions, and tart and flavorful za'atar (a mixture of dried oregano, wild thyme, dried sumac, and sesame seeds) topped with yogurt sauce. Last Saturday, after spotting a few flyers for an upcoming Lebanese dinner event, we were once again reminded of the glories of this country's cuisine. This time, we wanted to try some spinach pie and tabouli salad.
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The Venue: Emily's Lebanese Deli is one crackling fireplace, one chipped plate, and one overheard sibling squabble away from being a pop-up restaurant set inside a Lebanese family's living room. Nestled amid the businesses and warehouses on Stinson Avenue in Minneapolis, Zakia Deli's small, coolly professional dining area is just as friendly but much more sleek.
The Weigh-in: Emily's has been a Northeast fixture for nearly four decades; it's also one of the many Twin Cities restaurants that has been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Emily's friendly staff and focused menu would shame lesser and less delicious Middle Eastern eat shops. Zakia Deli is no slouch, though. It has only been around since 2007, but in its comparatively brief existence it has earned kudos from a variety of publications, including City Pages.
Round 1: The dough Spinach pies look like edible folded flags. When they're made properly, the many layers, folds, creases, and pinches in each pie ought to reveal the care of the hands that shaped them. While Emily's dough is sturdy and crisp, its blandness is a bit of a shock. Zakia's dough is more buttery, tender, and flavorful. But this dough has a weakness: Its delicate structure might not keep the spinach securely in place when you try to take a bite. In spite of this constant threat of a stained shirt, round one goes to Zakia. [page]
Round 2: The spinach Spinach used to be something even Popeye ate with a squint and a grimace. But somewhere along the line this green broke away from the drab, pine-colored innards we used to sullenly push around our plates and became something much, much better. Emily's adds just a touch of cinnamon, and possibly allspice, to a lemon-onions-spinach mixture that Zakia also uses in their pies. Although Zakia serves their pie with a yogurt dipping sauce that adds another note, it is not as interesting or as surprising as Emily's filling.
Round 3: Tabouli To round out our meal, we ordered a side of tabouli at each restaurant. This bright and fresh salad of parsley, tomato, onion, and bulghur wheat is one of those rare foods that is both healthy and tasty. Zakia's salad is slightly more balanced in its combination of these ingredients. And though cinnamon is the key addition to Emily's spinach filling, it's less effective here, thrown into a salad and paired with the lemon juice and parsley.The winner is... Zakia. Its buttery dough and tart salad should be two staples of any summer diet. But we know also that Emily's complex flavors and hospitality will continue to call to us. And really, why resist? Think of the Lebanese proverb that says "the eating is proportional to the love." Head over there, order the sample platter, and eat and eat and eat.