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When you're driving up Brookline Boulevard half-starved after a long day at work (as I was recently), there's a slight temptation to hit the brakes every half-block or so, pull into those strange, 45-degree parking spaces and just eat your way west.
Two of my favorite dining companions, Megan and Allison, were in the car as we wove our way into Brookline, ooh and ahhing at the establishments on the side of the road. Our destination -- Isis Cafe -- was just a few blocks farther.
"Ooohh, Pitaland!" Megan exclaimed.
And a half-block later, my jaw dropped as I saw that Las Palmas, a Mexican grocer, was braving bitter temperatures to maintain its outdoor taco stand.
"Guys, maybe we should get tacos after this," I said.
"I think that's an excellent idea," said Allison.
Isis Cafe, although located on Brookline's main drag, can be difficult to spot, a narrow storefront among several non-restaurants. Inside, we saw a dining room empty except for a young waiter and a cook, both of whom sprung to action upon our arrival.
The space is eccentrically decorated -- but leaves no doubt that you are in an Egyptian restaurant. And in case you need reminding, there's a towel decorated with hieroglyphics on the door. An assembled puzzle portraying the sphinx hung in a frame above our table and a hodgepodge of other decorations adorned the walls. The furniture, too, was mismatched: a handful of tables and chairs and a lounge area. Unusual, yes, but also homey, "like my grandma's house," remarked Megan.
Right off the bat, we ordered two soups with the hopes of thawing our frozen limbs: shorbet ats ($4), a pureed lentil soup, and shorbet lesan asfour ($4), a chicken broth soup with orzo pasta. I'm not a huge fan of lentils, but the pureed variety was deeply satisfying and slightly spicy, unlike anything I've ever had. The latter, clear broth spiked with a heavy dose of lemon juice, was reminiscent of the Greek soup avgolemono.
Next up, an array of treats for appetizers. There was baba ganoush ($3), a smoky eggplant dip, and tamatem bel gibna ($3), a soft cheese mixed with tomatoes, both served with a generous basket of flat bread. Arnabeet ($4), battered and deep fried cauliflower, was crispy on the outside but slightly creamy on the interior. Samboosa ($5), I assume, are the Egyptian equivalent of samosas, triangular pastries filled with peas and carrots.
For entrees, I opted for the tagen lama ($15), simple beef stew with carrots, peas and potatoes. With buttered rice and a tartly dressed lettuce salad, it was the perfect winter dish. Megan ordered the tagen gambarie ($16), succulent shrimp in a salty tomato sauce laced with fennel.
I was skeptical of the entree Allison ordered, the kushari masri ($6), which the young waiter insisted was his favorite. Macaroni noodles were piled high with lentils, rice and tomato sauce and then topped with "carmelized onions." It was oddly delicious and insanely filling, like I was eating a plateful of food with each bite. The onions were a bit burnt, but the strange combination of textures -- slippery noodles and soft lentils -- was oddly satisfying.
Perhaps because it's difficult to spot -- or perhaps because Pittsburghers are unfamiliar with Egyptian food -- we were the restaurant's only diners for nearly two hours and, I fear, for the evening. But with cheap eats you're unlikely to find elsewhere in the 'Burgh, it's well worth the stop. And it joins the other scrumptious international eats you'll find in Brookline, perhaps the only neighborhood where you can find Mexican, Ghanaian and Lebanese food all within a few blocks of each other.
Isis Cafe is at 815 Brookline Blvd. in Brookline; (412) 207-2485 and www.isiscafe-pgh.com/.
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