By Gulnaz Saiyed
It’s not easy being a foodie who’s practically broke, especially in Chicago, where delicious adventures await in every neighborhood. It’s also not easy when I’m craving something familiar. I grew up eating saffron rice and dipping my fingers into hummus prepared by my parents’ Middle Eastern friends. So when I’m not craving my mother’s spicy Indian cooking, I’m dreaming of roasted garlic, tahini and soft, oven-baked pita bread. I can typically find these, and other delicious dishes, throughout Albany Park, where there are a number of Middle Eastern restaurants. Although it’s not always an inexpensive night out when I want to drown my nostalgia in mint tea.
Enter Andersonville’s own Middle East Bakery and Grocery, where I can’t sit down for a meal, but where I can indulge, affordably, in lavash so soft I could sleep in a bed made exclusively from it.
The bakery could easily be missed by anyone shopping along Andersonville’s busy Clark Street, since it’s just around the corner on Foster. And the products, both imported and made on-site, offer more than just a culinary journey to the Middle East, they are an exciting reminder that the city’s diversity allows for boundless creativity.
According to owner Hisham Khalifeh, who is Palestinian but spent time living in Beirut, whether you are in Palestine, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon, “hummus is hummus.” But in the shop he’s owned for 30 years, he can offer concoctions like pesto hummus, spicy hummus, garlic hummus, red pepper hummus and, of course, just the regular, ho-hum hummus that’s so perfectly smooth and tangy I could sip it out of the container. Khalifeh said it’s always less than a day old because it sells out so quickly – he goes through about 500 pounds of hummus a week. I didn’t mess that number up. I mean 500 pounds of hummus. A quarter ton. Eight thousand ounces. Infinity deliciousness.
The prepared goods also include dolma, or stuffed grape leaves, soups, kibbe, dips, spreads and a variety of handmade savory pies. At less than $2 each, the spinach pies, artichoke pies, cheese and meat pies, make a perfect lunch. It grosses my Middle “that’s not how you’re supposed to eat it” Eastern husband out, but I dip them in the aforementioned hummus and imported labna yogurt-cheese to round out the meal. With a side of lentil soup and a chocolate baklava dessert, I’ve got a flavorful dinner for about half the price of going out to a restaurant. Since the ingredients here are always fresh, preservative- and additive-free,
The baked goods and deli, which also include bulk olives and creamy feta, make it easy to forget the shop also has the raw ingredients to cook and entertain from scratch. This includes cookbooks, bulk coffee beans and imported teas, spice mixes, beans, lentils, rice, dried fruits and nuts and pastas. While many establishments around the Chicago area offer similar fare, it’s clear why shoppers venture in from the suburbs. Unlike some ethnic shops, the imported selection doesn’t look like it sat around getting dusty while stuck in customs. The medjool dates – always a good gauge of quality in my book – are never dry and crusty, they’re always dense, sweet and dissolve slowly on your tongue.
Although inexpensive and tasty are currently my primary concerns as an eater today, I’m sure that Middle East Bakery and Grocery will still be a necessary stop in my week’s shopping when I can afford for taste to trump cost.
1512 W. Foster Ave.