For many years, Kassab's, on the corner of East Carson and 10th streets on the South Side, was one of Munch's steady dining spots, ever-pleasing and reliable in a pinch for two simple reasons: tastiness and inexpensiveness. Munch often jonesed for a meal of fat, fresh falafel capped with a diamond of homemade baklava. But Munch always worried, peering around the worn space, that the prices were too low and the business not booming enough for the Middle Eastern eatery to eke by.
Kassab's is now at 1207 E. Carson St. in the South Side (412-381-1820).
Apparently, Munch was very much in the wrong. Earlier this spring, Kassab's relocated to shiny new digs two blocks closer to Nick's Fat City. The old storefront sits empty, grimy and sad on the busy corner; the new one gleams with fresh paint. Picture windows sparkle, and over the door swings a jaunty hanging sign.
The restaurant's galley space is clean and bright, light and open, simply furnished with blond wood furniture. Business is plenty brisk; on a recent Wednesday evening, all the tables were full, peopled by a typically diverse South Side crowd of all ages.
Small children crawled beneath the tables and fingered the greenery frothing from the low planter against the front window. One little blond boy, leashed to his mother, waiting for takeaway, watched them longingly. A dread-locked father encouraged his look-alike son to eat more from an abundant serving of sleek, so he wouldn't be stuck with the leftovers.
Kassab's menus -- once ragged and sticky -- are freshly printed and bound. What they offer is unchanged: classic and trustworthy Middle Eastern fare including gyros, fatoush, tabbouleh, moussaka and falafel.
As usual, Munch and FOM came with huge appetites. As usual, Munch and FOM were guilty of the charge of having eyes far larger than their bellies.
To start, a meze platter was agreed upon. It's generous. Two blocks of tart feta, in the center of the platter, are ringed by herbed olives, crinkle-cut pickled beets, a scoop of hummus and a scoop of baba ganoush. The baba ganoush is slick and light, with a nice flavor; it's neither too smoky nor too tart. Lemon and sesame are discernible in the hummus, but neither overpowers, and the chickpea mash has an airy texture akin to mousse rather than paste. Thin moons of pita are warm and soft.
FOM's fatoush salad -- a composition of crunchy pita chips, lettuce and tomato -- was touched with a sweet dressing and fresh mint. The creamy yogurt dressing drizzled over Munch's house salad had a refreshing cucumber taste, like raita.
Kassab's meze platter, split between friends, and two good salads make a perfect summer meal. But gluttonous Munch and FOM had ordered entrees as well, not intending to dive into the meze platter as if they hadn't eaten in weeks. Whoops. Groan.
FOM, carnivorous to the bone, had ordered chicken and lamb shish kebob. The skewers of tender meat topped a pile of buttery pilaf. A ramekin of cinnamon-y tomato sauce, for dunking, was tartly complementary to the meat.
Munch went out on a vegetarian limb for the vegetable moussaka, an unusual stack of grilled eggplant, peas, onion and zucchini, topped with whipped potatoes. Mashed potatoes, far heavier than airy bechamel, make this a solidly satisfying stomach-filler. It lacked the meaty richness of the original lamb/eggplant casserole, redolent with spices and onion, and the silky texture eggplant gains by sponging up the fat of the lamb.
It was impeccable the next day, for lunch.
Munch was full, dizzy full, and FOM's stomach yelped. The table was stacked with styrofoam takeaway containers. There was not a niche in either belly for one of Kassab's lovely Lebanese pastries.
Next time. The food remains unchanged, and Kassab's pleasing new location is a far sunnier place to enjoy it.