Little Aladdin Restaurant

The open kitchen is what you first see when you enter the restaurant. You can smell and hear the sound of beef, chicken, or lamb sizzling on the flat top grill. Fresh pastries sit in the pastry display on top of the bakery display fridge, which contains a popular brand for Middle-Eastern foods called Mira. To the left of the ordering-counter is a beverage fridge that even contains a popular Middle-Eastern drinkable yogurt called Ayran in among the classic cokes and ginger ales.

If you’re lucky, the owner will take your order and make the meal in front of you. “All of our ingredients are fresh” he proudly tells me. As a restaurant owner, husband, and father, his life is always busy. Plans change at a moment’s notice, and Mohamed handles these disruptions with ease, multi-tasking with consummate finesse. Despite this, Mohamed still remembers the names of the majority of his frequent patrons. The bulk of his customers are students from the high school and college down the street. Customers can enjoy the relaxing atmosphere, free tea, and wi-fi as they dig into their shawarmas.

Life

Mohamed first came to America as a 26 year-old student in March of 1996. A civil engineering major from Egypt, he attended the University of New Haven because it was one of the few schools that offered his major.  As he had learned English at school before he came to America, maintaining his grades was relatively easy. His biggest challenge was paying for school and he had to make ends meet by getting a job at a nearby restaurant. Little did he know at the time this opportunity would convince him to open up his own food-related business in the future. Unfortunately, Mohamed had to complete his bachelor’s degree in Egypt due to financial issues. Subsequently, shortly after getting married, Mohamed came to the realization that running a restaurant was the best way to support his new family. He moved back to America and opened his first restaurant May 1, 2004 in Hartford, Connecticut with a couple of his friends from the States. This restaurant opened in January of 2016 and is immensely popular with the many UConn students that frequent the establishment.

Food

            Mediterranean cuisine, as the name implies, collectively includes the food from all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This wide swath includes many European, North African and Middle Eastern countries. Many of the foods are characterized by the use of yogurt, olives, parsley, thyme, dill weed, fava beans, chickpeas, lamb, and goat. That said, diversity is the hallmark of Mediterranean cuisine, with Italian and French cuisine being dramatically different from their North African and Eastern Mediterranean counterparts. Mohammed’s restaurant specializes in Eastern Mediterranean cuisine, heavily influenced by the Levant.

            When I asked Mohamed the questions, “what is your favorite Eastern Mediterranean dish” and “what would you recommend to people who are new to Mediterranean food?” Mohamed begins to answer and then falters. “All of them are good” he says. Despite coaxing him to name at least one dish, Mohamed stays firm with his answer. “If I give you my opinion, then people will think that only falafels are good, or koftas are good. I want people to try everything and then see for themselves”. It is imperative that Mohamed remains unbiased because he wants people to discover their own favorite foods. He maintains a friendly demeanor to encourage his customers to eat something they are unfamiliar with. Fortunately, I was able to learn that the chicken shawarma is the most popular item on the menu. As a newbie, I decided to try that as my first meal.

My Experience

When Mohamed called out my order, I was greeted with a large plate of meat. Upon closer inspection I realized that there was a layer of rice under the chicken. A few slices of pickles rest in the corner of the plate and two different sauces are provided. One is the classic tzaziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce redolent with garlic. The second is tahini, made with sesame seeds, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and water. My first bite of the shawarma was filled with pleasantly bitter flavor of the charred chicken. The chicken was both tender and crispy, and the rice contained pieces of carrots that did not detract from the flavors of the meat. The sourness of the pickles balances out the bitter tastes from the meat, so I enjoyed the addition of the pickles slices and the tzatziki. I finished the meal a full and happy customer.

Apart from shawarma, the menu also includes appetizers like hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel; salads like tabbouleh (bulgur wheat and parsley) or fattoush, with lettuce, tomato, mint and onions.  Different kinds of kebabs are also available ranging from chicken to kaufta, made of ground lamb.  Dessert features the ubiquitous baklava or herrisa, a semolina cake soaked in syrup.

Conclusion

If you are a hungry student or just someone who wants to try something different then I recommend visiting Little Aladdin in Storrs, Mansfield, Connecticut. You can make friends with Mohamed and try unique dishes that will allow to experience a part of another culture.

Visit

Little Aladdin Restaurant
Address: 1232 Storrs Rd, Storrs, CT 06268
Phone: 860-477-1133
Fax: 860-477-1117
Email: info@littlealaddin.com

McKoi-Alaia Brown is an aspiring travel critic, writer, and photographer. She is currently earning her bachelor’s degree while trying to gain new experiences, and exploring what life has to offer. Follow her on Instagram here.

 

Rincon de Buenos Aires Restaurant

Rincon-de-Buenos-Aires-1

Bright neon lights in every conceivable color of the rainbow beckon tourists, vying for every ounce of their limited attention span on the strip.  This is Las Vegas, loud, brash and distinctly unapologetic, a surreal fantasy world in the middle of the Nevada desert. The ubiquitous cheap buffets aimed at enticing tourists from the hinterland have now given way to haute cuisine, with every chef worth their mettle clamoring to open an outpost of restaurants on the strip.  From Joel Robuchon to Iron Chef Bobby Flay, you haven’t really made it anymore until you’ve opened a restaurant on the Las Vegas strip.

Step away from the strip and the frenetic pace dies down and Las Vegas reveals it’s human side. The real Las Vegas, if you will.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on Spring Mountain Road, where Las Vegas’ own Chinatown is situated.  In this neighborhood, where the strip gives way to strip-malls, one finds dozens of Asian restaurants parked cheek and jowl, vying for attention. Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese are all represented here without the over-the-top faux-glitz that has now become emblematic of the Las Vegas culture.

In the midst of this Asian enclave is where you will find Rincon de Buenos Aires, a testament to the melting pot American cities have become. At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss it as a mishmash of foreign cultures, since the restaurant bills itself as an Argentinian restaurant and an Italian deli.  However it is important to note that roughly 70% of Argentinians have some Italian heritage and Italian food in Argentina is intrinsically woven into the traditional meat-centric cuisine.

Rincon de Buenos Aires is exactly what it says it is: a little corner of Las Vegas that will transport you, from the second you walk through the door, to one of the grandest cities in South America. A city with stunning architecture and a distinctly European vibe that has also endured one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has known. While the Dirty War has been over for decades, you are reminded of it every Thursday by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers whose children ‘disappeared’ as a consequence of their activism against the then government.  In the early 2000s, Political corruption was so severe that it torpedoed the entire country into such economic turmoil that they’re still recovering to this day. But Buenos Aires is a survivor and still endures as one of the most charming cities in South America.

Any self-respecting resident of Buenos Aires will tell you, it is all about the food. Similarly, here the pictures of tango dancers, scenes of Buenos Aires and highlights of Argentine soccer on TV screens do little to distract from the food.  The meal starts off with warm baked bread served with chimichurri, a vegetal blend of green herbs, garlic and olive oil. Argentinian empanadas, the ubiquitous pockets of pastry with fillings ranging from beef and chicken to corn are an ideal starter.  Both baked and fried versions are available, along with uncooked versions meant to be finished off at home. Also apparent is the Argentinian love for mayonnaise, in the form of Salade Russe or Russian salad. Pasta, in various forms, and Milanesa- a breaded chicken cutlet, are a nod to the Italian influence in Argentina. That said, the star of the show is the Argentinian grill or Parillada. 3-5 different cuts of meat are brought to the table on a charcoal grill with a side of chimichurri on the side.  One lets their meat cook to their desired doneness, and then just dig in. Different versions of the parillada are available, ones with sweetbreads and blood sausage for the more adventurous, and others with less exotic meats.  And to wash it down, Renee, the owner stocks a number of wines from the famous Mendoza Valley.  A Malbec will usually suffice quite well.  If you’re in a more casual mood, there are lighter options; even sandwiches that the owner, Renee, claims I would’ve fallen in love with, had I not had such a craving for steak. She serves traditional Argentinian sandwiches like choripan filled with Argentinian sausage and the gut-busting Argentinine staple- the lomito- bursting with steak, ham, cheese and a fried egg. For dessert, Dulce de Leche,or milk caramel reigns supreme, flavoring everything from flan and alfajores to milhojas, a ‘thousand’ layered cake. In a hurry? No problem. There’s a roughly twenty-foot meat and cheese display case, as well as additional aisles and shelves in the back with everything an Argentine or South American heart desires. Whether it’s yerba for Mate or Dulce de Leche, this little rincon has you covered. And, as Renee will tell you, just like in Argentina, the closing time listed on the door is only a guideline, not a rule.

You would be excused for thinking that Renee was a Porteno from Buenos Aires, but she hails from Barahona in the Dominican Republic, a beach town roughly three hours east of the capital of Santo Domingo, Renee and her family moved to the United States to escape a sky-high unemployment rate brought on by years of political corruption and economic chaos. After a first stop in Miami, she arrived in Las Vegas twenty-one years ago. It all changed when eleven years ago the previous owners, friends from Argentina who were struggling to keep the doors open finally agreed to sell the restaurant to them. Since then, Renee and her son-in-law Johnny have created a business that has survived the worst recession this country’s seen since 1929.

The success of Rincon de Buenos Aires lies in the tight-knit family that runs the show. For most, it would seem improbable that a mother-in-law and son-in-law could work so closely together with such success. However, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s that very relationship that has fortified this establishment over such a lengthy period and enabled everything to function almost seamlessly. Here in our country, and especially in this city, it’s easy to get blinded by bright lights and massive billboards while losing sight of what matters. It’s through the hard work and family values that Renee, Johnny and their family have been able to steer their restaurant in the right direction, making it all it can be. It’s not just a rincon representing of one of the most beautiful cultures in South America and the world. It’s the seven-lane 9 De Julio street at eleven o’clock at night; a random tango class taking place with their doors open in Palermo; it’s the entire city banging pots and pans in unison to protest another audacious proposition by their government. It’s all Buenos Aires… and, that would make any Porteno feel right at home.

Visit:

Rincon de Buenos Aires
5300 Spring Mountain Rd # 115,
Las Vegas, NV 89146
(702) 257-3331

While he now calls Las Vegas home, Darren J. Alvino, II is an avid traveler who has lived, worked and studied on almost every continent. Four years as an Army Ranger,  a B.A. in International Studies from The University of Colorado and an boyhood fascination of National Geographic have ingrained in him a deep love & respect for all aspects of our worlds’ cultures, especially their cuisine.

 

Salvadoreño Restaurant

Karlos Ramirez‘s parents had to flee their native El Salvador due to the horrific violence from the country’s 12-year civil war. Miriam and Alfredo knew that the only way to achieve a safer and better quality of life for their family was to come to the United States. In the late 70’s, Alfredo was the first to make it out of the country to California, leaving his wife and two children behind. It was not until four years later that Miriam was able to follow him, making the heart-wrenching decision to leave her kids behind with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. After two long years of separation, they were finally able to bring their daughter, Yesenia, and son, Karlos, to the U.S. as well. It was while living in California that their youngest son, Joel was born.

The Ramirez family has always been hard-working and entrepreneurial. In California, Miriam and Alfredo had a well-settled life working for Shaklee supplements, but after they moved to the Phoenix area in 2002, Miriam decided to go all-out and open a restaurant. After years of receiving compliments for her pupusas—a popular Salvadoran food—she wanted to bring the traditional food of El Salvador to the Phoenix area, opening her first restaurant in Mesa, Arizona.

The Mesa, Arizona Location

When you first approach the restaurant, it is tucked into the corner of a strip mall, not far off the freeway. Something that was new to me when we moved to Arizona was that really excellent restaurants could be found in strip malls! You can’t miss its bright red sign, and the sign on the front window calls out some of the traditional food they offer.

It is a casual, unassuming atmosphere, with about ten tables. Great for couples, families, or even to grab a quick lunch to go. You’ll find the service is friendly and quick.

Open at 10:00am everyday, they serve a variety of traditional Salvadoran breakfast dishes, like Chorizo Salvadoreño con Huevos Revueltos. Even though the names may sound familiar to some of the dishes you may have eaten at your local Mexican restaurant, don’t be fooled! Salvadoran food has its own unique flavors and ingredients that will delight and surprise you.

All breakfast dishes are served with two handmade corn tortillas; but again, don’t think Mexican tortillas. These tortillas are thicker and softer—delicious.

As I spoke with Karlos, he introduced me to pupusas. “The pupusas are definitely the most popular thing we have,” he explained. “We have meat ones, veggie ones…the top two that we sell are revuelta, or ‘mixed,’ and it has pork, cheese, and beans mixed together, and the other one is loroco, an edible flower from El Salvador.”

Loroco isn’t grown in the United States and has to be imported.  It tastes similar to artichoke. The pupusas are served hot with a mild salsa and a slaw called “curtido” as an accompaniment. The pupusas are meant to eaten with your hands, but I got away with using a fork, too. They are delicious and filling! I could only get through about half of each of them and had to take the rest home to enjoy later. They look simple, but Karlos tells me they require a specific technique: “Quite frankly, if your mom and grandma didn’t teach you how to make pupusas, you don’t know how to do them.” Making hundreds a day requires chefs with skill and experience. “We do have chefs and cooks from other countries, but they’ve probably gone through fire to even still be here. It’s not easy.”

For lunch, you can’t go wrong with their Combinacion Salvadoreña, which is technically on their appetizer menu, but if you aren’t familiar with Salvadoran food, it’s a nice sampling to become familiar with typical flavors and ingredients. I took mine “to go” so my husband and I could enjoy it later for dinner. The combination plate more than filled both of us, and we still had leftovers, so be sure to enjoy it with friends!

It comes with two empanadas (one with meat and vegetables and one with potatoes and cheese), a tamale, savory fried pork pieces, yucca, plantain chips, and an empanada dessert filled with a slightly sweet custard cream.

Another first for me was their horchata. Again, different from Mexican horchata, Salvadorean horchata does not contain milk. It’s made with morro, rice and cinnamon, which are roasted together and then finely ground and then mixed with water and sugar. It looks like coffee with a lot of cream in it, but tastes like nothing I’ve had before—vaguely like licorice, but you just have to taste it for yourself.

Salvadoran food in general is not spicy and with unique ingredients like loroco, yucca, and chipilin (a leguminous plant originally from Central America), you will be delighted by new flavors. Savadoreño focuses on serving homestyle cooking with recipes that have been in the Ramirez family for years. Everything is made fresh, right when you order it. With the wide selection of meat, seafood, soups, and vegetarian dishes, there is something for everyone. Their ceviche was voted one of the top 50 dishes in the Valley by Phoenix Magazine—definitely on my list to try next time.

A Family Affair

Miriam and Alfred started with the Mesa location, but have since added four other locations. Karlos runs the Mesa location, his sister, Yesenia, runs the North Phoenix location, an uncle runs their Riverside, California location, and brother Joel runs their food truck, Zpotes. Miriam and Alfred sometimes speak of retiring, but as of today, you’ll find them running the El Salvadoreño location in West Phoenix at N. 75th Avenue and W. Thomas.

The Mesa location delivers, both via phone and through food delivery apps. Also, consider bringing something new to your next event by using Salvadoreño for your catering needs.

 

Visit

Salvadoreño Restaurant
303 E Southern Ave Ste 113, Mesa, AZ 85210
Phone:(480) 835-1038

Other Locations:

330 S Gilbert Rd Ste 20 Mesa, AZ 85204: Phone:(480) 964-5577

7333 W Thomas Rd Ste 88 Phoenix, AZ 85033: Phone:(623) 846-6100

8911 N Central Ave Ste 101 Phoenix, AZ 85020: Phone: (602) 870-2955

4650 La Sierra Ave, Riverside, CA 92505, USA: Phone: (951) 343-7285

Dana Keller is a writer, facilitator and travel agent located in Phoenix, Arizona.  She is passionate about food, travel, education, and refugees. She is also an ardent believer that we shouldn’t stop playing just because we grow up!  You can learn more at www.travelisplay.com and www.danakeller.net.