Top 10 Middle Eastern restaurants in the Twin Cities

Get your gyro on

Get your gyro on

Ah, the cradle of civilization: birthplace of modern agriculture, organized religion, and falafel. The Midwest isn't exactly a Mecca of, well, Mecca-inspired cuisine, but we do have a handful of Middle Eastern restaurants here in the Twin Cities worth seeking out when those kabob cravings strike. Here are 10 of our favorites.

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10. Khyber Pass Cafe Right across from Macalester College, Khyber Pass serves Afghan home cooking in classic college-town style--that is, in large portions, with plenty of vegetarian options, in a room that's fancy enough to take your visiting parents to but not so expensive that you couldn't pick up the check with your birthday money. The kabobs of lamb and chicken are always good bets. Vegetarian combination plates with sabzi, fresh spinach cooked with leeks and spices, or kachaloo (curried potatoes) are simple and satisfying. A serviceable wine list, rose-water rice pudding, Afghan green tea with cardamom, and pretty, piped-in Afghan music round out the experience. Add to the fine, inexpensive food Khyber Pass's mellow, homey decor and warm, attentive staff, and you've got all the ingredients for a St. Paul classic. 1571 Grand Avenue, St. Paul; 651.690.0505 Khyber Pass Cafe's website

9. Caspian Bistro Caspian Bistro offers Persian-style cuisine tucked away in a warehouse on University Avenue in the U of M area. If you can't find a kabob you like here, you never will. The hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and gyros are crowd-pleasers, with the homemade lemonade and pistachio ice cream adding unique accents to the menu. The Persian rice is fluffy and flavorful, with hints of saffron and plenty of butter, and the kabobs are tender and well-seasoned. The space is airy and bright, with high ceilings and large windows. Caspian boasts an adjoining Persian market, where you can find everything from jars of fig jam to pomegranate paste, among other imported items from Turkey and Iran. 2418 Southeast University Avenue, Minneapolis; 612.623.1113 Caspian Bistro's website

8. Emily's Lebanese Deli Tiny and well-worn, this beloved neighborhood spot just northeast of downtown Minneapolis is easy to miss, but it's worth seeking out. The traditional selections, seasoned with a light hand, are delicious. Kibbi--ground beef, cracked wheat, cinnamon, cardamom, onions, and pine nuts--is so fresh it's ordered raw as often as cooked. The kabobs are heady with butter, garlic, and clove. Grape leaves rolled with rice and spiced lamb come with tangy, thick homemade yogurt; hummus bi-tahini is laced with lemon; baba ghanoush packs a garlicky punch; and the tabouli is parsley-mint fresh. Don't skip the baklawa (Lebanese baklava), with its layers of phyllo, butter, walnuts, and honey-rosewater syrup. Entrées are all under $10 and come with tabbouleh and bread. It's perfect for takeout, or, if you want to learn more about the making of kafta (ground beef kabobs), mistah (thick golden bread), or real feta, hang around and eat in. Closed Tuesdays. 641 University Avenue NE, Minneapolis; 612.379.4069 Emily's Lebanese Deli's website


7. Jerusalem's Restaurant Ever since camels got humps Jerusalem's has been winning local "Best Middle Eastern Restaurant" awards--or at least, it seems that way. Why? The awkwardly charming tented room, which always feels like it's been whipped together for a party just for you. The inexpensive, simple foods perfect both for a quiet vegetarian date (with wine or beer!) or for a super-filling mixed plate of lamb specialties. It's not terrifically fancy or aggressively cutting edge, but that's probably why it's first in so many hearts: Jerusalem's just sits near downtown, year after year, under its funny onion dome, quietly radiating the homey vibe of a place where you can slip off your Birkenstocks and discuss politics, culture, or which came first, the camel or the hump. 1518 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.871.8883 Jerusalem Restaurant's Facebook page

6. Babani's Kurdish Restaurant The first Kurdish restaurant to open in the United States, Babani's is named for the Babani tribe, whose men were known for their fighting skills and sexual prowess (seriously, it says that on the menu) and whose women were considered kind, forgiving, and exceptionally good at cooking. The menu consists of authentic Kurdish dishes, including chicken tawa (chicken sautéed in lemon and spices and baked in layers of potatoes, green peppers, onions, and dried limes) and Sheik Babani (cored eggplant filled with spicy meat and vegetables). The tangy Dowjic soup made from chicken, yogurt, and lemon juice is a patron favorite that works miracles on a head cold and is credited for "keeping many a Kurdish traveler from wandering too far from home." 544 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651.602.9964 Babani's Kurdish Restaurant's website

5. Crescent Moon Bakery & Restaurant Nicole and Meerwais Azizi's bakery and counter-service restaurant offers what is inarguably the Twin Cities' finest Afghan pizza. Order one and you'll receive a groaning platter spilling over with a vast slab of pillowy roasted Afghan bread glazed with a light tomato sauce and smothered with a salty cheese blend, then topped with your choice of ingredients, ranging from spicy halal beef to distinctly non-Afghan pineapple chunks. Cut into squares and served with an addictively spicy and zingy green herb and pepper sauce, the Afghan pizza manages to evoke both that weird standard rural-Minnesota pizza grid and something completely different--the roasty, fierce flavors of far away. The spinach pies and ground-chicken tikka kabob are also standouts. Although service can be slow, a weekday visit with a newspaper and a cup of chai tea can yield fresh-made, slow-food treasures. 2339 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis; 612.782.0169 Crescent Moon's website

4. Beirut Restaurant When you're looking for a Lebanese dinner with ambiance--someplace that feels more like a restaurant than a cafeteria, with tableside service and roaming belly dancers--Beirut is the place to go. This St. Paul institution has been around since the mid-'80s, slinging its fresh, homemade Lebanese fare, along with top-notch wine and cocktails. Choose from pocket sandwich or kabob platters, all of which come with rice pilaf and tabbouleh, with their patented, craveable garlic sauce on the side (just make sure anyone you're kissing later has some too). Vegetarians will find much to choose from here, with a special section on the menu offering everything from spinach pie to baked eggplant and falafel. Carnivores will love the succulent, medium rare kabobs and the perfectly seasoned shawima. Hungry groups should go straight for the Mezza--a traditional Lebanese dining experience that starts with an array of eight appetizers, followed by a mixed grill of your choice of kabobs. Top it all off with some Arabic coffee or rich baklava. Go on a Saturday night to round out the experience with live music and belly dancing. 1385 Robert St., W. St. Paul; 651.457.4886 Beirut Restaurant's website

3. Holy Land Deli A Middle Eastern/Mediterranean deli, supermarket, and restaurant, Holy Land serves up quality and quantity without damaging the wallet. On the 45-item-plus menu are greatest hits such as grape leaves, baklava, falafel, and baba ghanoush, with some of the all-star dishes including the gyros (spiced lamb, beef, chicken, or vegetables topped with onion, lettuce, feta, and cucumber or tahini sauce, all on homemade pita bread), lamb kabobs, Greek salads, and spinach pie. Plus, their tabbouleh salad, hummus, and fresh pocket bread are easily the best in town. The selection of variously flavored rotisserie chickens available for takeout offers the basis for a great meal at home, with the addition of a homemade side dish or two, or a few of their lamb or vegetable samosas. With locations in both northeast Minneapolis and in the Midtown Global Market, all of Minneapolis has easy access to Holy Land's quick and yummy Middle Eastern food. 2513 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis; 612.781.2627 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.870.6104 Holy Land Deli's website

2. Shish Cafe The demand for Leo Judah's homemade lamb burgers, rich moussaka, light and zingy hummus, deeply flavored kibbeh, buoyant and crisp spinach pies, big fresh salads, and potently flavored baba ghanoush has kept Shish Cafe hopping since its 2007 opening. The Shish Maza plate is a must: Order it and you get the restaurant's beautiful hummus, a weighty, toasty, thickly creamy rendition served glossed with olive oil and sprinkled with good paprika, as well as a scoop of lively tabbouleh, freshly shredded baba ghanoush, a trio of roasty falafel balls made a little nutty by a batter with a good number of sesame seeds. The plate is further loaded up with squares of feta cheese, good olives, tomatoes, and lettuce, and served with a big basket of pita bread. Heartier shish kabob plates come with your choice of meat, like lamb, kefta (ground beef and spices), chicken, or vegetables, and are served supper-club style with everything included. 1668 Grand Avenue, St. Paul; 651.690.2212 Shish Cafe's website

1. Saffron Most Americans think of Middle Eastern food as hummus and shish kabob. But Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey have their own distinctive cuisines, a blend of culinary traditions that evolved over centuries of migration and war. Saffron is a fitting place to savor the diversity of the Middle East, as the restaurant features flavors of northern Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Peninsula. Everything on the menu, from the giant beans laced with dill and olive oil to the sweet and savory chicken bisteeya in flaky phyllo dough, is carefully prepared and faithful to the ingredients' flavors. Saffron has a fantastic cocktail program, featuring original drinks made with infused liquors. Spices such as white and Szechuan peppers, mejdool dates, and chamomile transform familiar spirits into veritable elixirs. 123 N. Third St., Minneapolis; 612.746.5533 Saffron's website

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