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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.