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November 4, 2013

Mediterranean munchies in New Albany

Aladdin’s Café brings authentic favorites

NEW ALBANY — The dishes might be simple and the space is small, but Mike Sajaja’s new restaurant serves up something that’s  fairly exotic fare for New Albany.

Tucked between a tavern and a barbershop on West Market Street, Aladdin’s Café serves up Mediterranean staples, many of them made fresh by Sajaja, his wife and daughter.

“I wanted the menu to be simple, not complicated,” Sajaja said. “Considering the space, this is not set up to be a five-star restaurant. I was limited on what I could do.”

But Sajaja, who hails from Jordan by way of Eurasia’s Georgia, offers up eats largely unavailable in the city. Gyros — pronounced “YEER-ohs” — the Greek lamb and beef sandwiches normally served only during Harvest Homecoming, and hummus, homemade daily, are part of Aladdin’s Café’s continually expanding menu.

After opening in mid-September, Sajaja said he planned on mainly selling coffee, so he kept the menu minimal. But the popularity of dishes such as his fresh hummus and chicken shawarma — pulled chicken with a homemade garlic sauce and pickles served on a toasted pita — led to more requests for Mediterranean favorites.

Sajaja and his family have been in the United States for a couple of decades and have spent the last three years in New Albany. Zein, Mike’s wife, had worked for caterers and served big meals for years, but the desire to open their own place became a reality after months of planning.

“I had it in my mind the whole time that I wanted to open a family place where we could serve some coffee and her food so she’d have her own place to do that,” Mike said. “They like the food. It’s good and affordable.”

He said as more people started coming in, he was surprised he got so many requests for falafel, deep-fried balls formed from ground chickpeas and fava beans. After making the necessary changes to the kitchen, he said they began serving it last week.

He said they don’t fry up frozen falafel, but make it in-house. Served either by themselves or on a pita a homemade yogurt sauce, diced tomatoes and pickles, he said that dish has also gained popularity.

“I wasn’t planning on serving that,” Sajaja said. “But after everyone started asking for it, I thought ‘why not?’ With everything I do, I like to have a plan and make sure what we make is going to be good.”

He said hopefully they’ll also begin serving beef kabob sandwiches. He said he’s still perfecting the recipe and presentation, but expects to add the dish to the menu soon.

Nancy, Mike’s daughter, said it’s fun for her to share food she’s grown up with.

“A lot of people know this food and they’re kind of used to it,” Nancy said. “It’s cool, especially with the culture we have with the food.”

While the meat and sauce of the gyros aren’t produced at the restaurant, Mike said he was very particular with the company they chose to purchase the meat and yogurt sauce from. He said it’s one of his most popular menu items.

The restaurant also serves Turkish coffee, which is prepared on the stove with cardamom, which he said provides its unique flavor.

As business as continued to pick up, Mike said he’s just glad people have been willing to try something different than they might be used to eating. But the feedback he’s gotten has reinforced his reasons for opening, as well.

“We’ve got so many people who come in who’ve never had a gyro or hummus before, but so many people say they love it and want to bring their families,” Mike said. “It’s wonderful when people tell you it’s the best they’ve had. We hear that every single day.”

Aladdin’s Café

111 West Market Street, New Albany

Free wi-fi

More information available on their Facebook page.

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