Exploring the menu at Aladdin Mediterranean Grill in Fondren may be as close as I get to the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, but once my dish shows up, it always feels close enough.
It’s usually the fried kibby plate, where the football-shaped pockets of nicely spiced ground beef and pine nuts, encased in a sirloin cracked wheat and deep fried to perfection, have proved so delicious I’ve yet to cruise to the next favorite port. Tzatziki sauce is there for the dipping, though I’ve been known to drag the kibby through that delectable hummus as well. A green salad, rice and pita bread round out the entree that always makes me happiest.
Unless we’re talking about that time I got the barramundi (tasty sea bass topped with bell peppers and onions). Or, my other early favorite, hummus with lamb. Or my recent introduction to the Big Combo’s shrimp, lamb chops and chicken kebabs — mercy, what a meal!
Flavorful selections, competitive prices and a real neighborhood feel make Aladdin the kind of spot that invites regular travels, and that’s just as owner/chef Yoseph Ali intended.
Ali opened the restaurant on Lakeland Drive in Jackson in November 2004 and “it’s been great” since, he says.
Mediterranean cuisine wraps in flavors from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, a bit of Greece. “That kind of food is what this place is, says Ali, who learned the cuisine from a Jordanian chef when Aladdin first opened.
“It’s one of the healthiest foods out there. I know in Mississippi, being across the street from the hospital, I thought it’d be an easy target.” With the sprawling University of Mississippi Medical Center just across Lakeland Drive, and St. Dominic Hospital right down the street, Aladdin is in a sweet spot to reach health-conscious professionals as well as diners in Fondren and beyond with a taste for adventure.
Mediterranean cuisine is now well-known the capital city, but that wasn’t the case more than a decade ago. “When we first opened, there probably was only one other (Mediterranean) restaurant, and because of that, it was a little bit different and difficult,” Ali says. “But I had the confidence,” with doctors, nurses and likely international travelers nearby. “And, people started learning about it, and how healthy it is for them, and we make pretty much everything from scratch.”
He felt sure it would work, and it has. “I have lots of regulars,” and he has for years, expanding his base through word of mouth. He credits dedication and consistency. “It’s a tough business. If you’re really going to do it right in a place like this — a small place — this has to be your life.”
Aladdin is continually updating its small space, fashioning cozy pockets for diners to tuck into. “Every year we try to do more. I’m sure next year, we’re going to do something different.” A yearly gift certificate sale — one day, first Saturday in December — raises money for decorative boosts (such as the charming enclosed patio out front) and a donation of five percent of the profit to the community organization R U Hungry.
A Mediterranean grocery at the back has been part of the picture since about 2007, with ingredients ripe for exploration by home cooks, from making baklava or kibby on their own to tasting different olive oils, teas or cheese.
Lush textiles, pillows and gauzy curtains suggest an oasis feel, Mediterranean style, and the mint iced tea is a welcome refresher. “You go anywhere in the Middle East, or Lebanon or Jordan … and you have that texture kind of feeling,” Ali says. Belly dancers perform once a month — each first Friday.
Lamb is a best seller and specialty at Aladdin, and anything with lamb — lamb chops to gyros — finds scores of fans. Hummus, too — and here, the dip of tahini (sesame paste), lemon and pureed chickpeas turns into a silky smooth wonder made even better with extra virgin olive oil, a dab of jalapeño pesto and a dusting of sumac spice.
Every now and then, Ali adds something different — redfish is a recent addition — to give his regulars something new to try.
I take the hint and delve into additional options in the appetizer realm, such as the spinach pie, where crisp, delicate layers of phyllo encase a wonderfully warm mix of spinach, onion, feta and sumac spice. The fried cheese, too — Haloumi sheep’s cheese sautéed with garlic and olive oil — melts a new heart. A healthy heart, I remind myself, savoring another bite.
Explore Aladdin at 730 Lakeland Drive in Jackson, and at aladdininjackson.com.