Moments before sundown on a recent Tuesday, the parking lot of Columbia Heights' Big Marina Deli is packed with every kind of vehicle.
Inside, a host is directing hordes of diners to tables with the aplomb of an air traffic controller. Every table is set with a little pot of juicy dates, but they go mostly untouched. Everyone is waiting for the main event.
The average Saturday night dinner rush has nothing on this. It's sundown during Ramadan, and you'd better believe everyone wants to eat at the same time.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of daylight fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. During these 29 to 30 days, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations from dawn until sunset.
Every table is filled. There are couples, extended families, single old men, groups of young men fresh from soccer practice still in their jerseys, and lots and lots of excitable kids. There's a crackling of celebration in the air, as there is around any holiday table. Women are dressed in dazzling hijab of every color, studded with silver and gold baubles. The little girls are especially fetching, with gazes pointed upward toward overflowing tables.
Everybody grabs plastic plates (ceramic would undoubtedly be impractical for the volume) and begins to encircle four groaning buffet tables. There is the laser-like focus of any serious decision-making scenario. Everyone tries hard to stay out of everyone else's way.
There are shiny pink triangles of watermelon, orange wedges dribbling juice, grape clusters both red and purple, glistening niblets of yellow corn, trays upon trays of bread that do not fit in the wells so they must ride sidecar upon the ledges. Pots of butter. Hills of many kinds of rice threatening to spill over.
Pasta dishes arrive, one with a toasty raft of cheese, another spiced with cardamom, another with plain but good spaghetti and marinara.
Shavings of gyro meat, cabbage rolls, dolmades, biscuits and gravy, chicken noodle soup, lentil soup, roast beef, mashed potatoes, tabbouleh, baba ganouj, sides of salmon, hummus, stuffed fish, lamb shanks, lamb ribs, curried chicken, chicken wings, more mountainous piles of cut fruit, a beautiful tomato salad with orange bell peppers, strong tea, kofta, samosas. It's like Old Country Buffet grew up.
Everything looks and tastes scratch-made, and the kitchen doors swing open constantly to refill the wells that empty with reliable rhythm.
It's an astonishing deal for all-you-can-eat at $15 a head.
An illuminated sweets cabinet exhibits rows and rows of pastel cookies and cakes lined and stacked like colorful tea saucers. After the final trip through the buffet, parents hoist up kids sack-of-potatoes-style to facilitate peering and deciding.
A catering tent is set up in the parking lot to accommodate overflow. Every Middle Eastern restaurant in Columbia Heights and northeast Minneapolis — and there are many— is similarly appointed.
Big Marina Deli
4755 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights