2646 S. 700 East, Salt Lake City ; 801-466-3197
Bare bones decor and disposable tableware shouldn't deter you from good, affordable halal/Pakistani cuisine.
Cuisine: Indian, Middle Eastern
Hours: M-S, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Su, 2-9 p.m.
Corkage: $ 0
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Chicken boti, chicken karahi, plain naan.
July 14, 2010
Fast food, good food at Ali Baba and Johnniebeefs
By Vanessa Chang
Convenience stores, mini-marts, gas stations - whatever they're called - are mini-fortresses of consumer goods, but they usually aren't considered outposts of good food.
Here are blessed exceptions in the form of two restaurants, located in quirky venues, that I happened upon recently.
Ali Baba - Just north of Nibley golf course in Salt Lake City, there's a non-descript corner gas station. Ali Baba is located in the former pizza delivery station behind the gas station.
The food here is halal, meaning it's up to hygienic and culturally-sound standards imparted by Islam, and its flavors will be familiar to lovers of Northern Indian cuisine. Biryani and curry are featured prominently on the small menu. Most of the patrons eating-in are part of the local Muslim community. Still, it's not unusual to see a table of modestly-dressed women dining with their husbands adjacent to a table of tank-topped wearing 20-somethings.
The scene inside is nothing fancy. In fact, it's rather bare, and if it weren't for the aromas in the air and the buffet island (which is open for lunch only), you wouldn't know this was a restaurant.
The owners are quiet, patient and kind, explaining what's what to a newbie who has no idea what biryani (a rice dish) is. If the place were more crowded and the owners a bit more comfortable with their customers, it would remind me of the popular Curry in a Hurry. And really, Ali Baba deserves such a clientele with its straightforward, reasonably priced food.
The curries come in a combo and in your choice of spice level ($4.99 to $7.99). The accompanying daal (lentils) are seasoned well and surprised even the non-vegetarians who scoffed at legumes. The naan (butter, garlic or plain, $1.99) comes piping hot and is about the size of a baby blanket.
Ali Baba's stand-out dishes aren't on the menu that's posted on the wall, but they're worth asking for. Chicken karahi ($7.99), is a mild curry, based on tomatoes and chopped greens. Named after its cooking vessel, a sort of deep-dished skillet, the dark meat is tender and the sauce is ideal for mopping with the naan.
The server called another must-have dish simply "grilled chicken" ($2.99). The meat (either chicken cubes or whole legs) came sizzling and fluorescent red, thanks to a marinade of yogurt and potent chili powder, which might remind people of tandoori chicken. It was tender, juicy and flavorful, and it makes a phenomenal chicken sandwich when it's wrapped in a swath of naan.
Johnniebeefs • It's easy to overlook Johnniebeefs, which is tucked behind the nachos and chips inside a busy In & Out Market in Midvale. But for hot dog and sandwich lovers, there's no mistaking convenience store slop with the delicacies offered at Johnnie's back counter.
Not too long ago, Johnniebeefs was in a separate venue with a larger menu and a core of die-hard fans. Despite the love and the uniqueness of its Chicago-style hot dogs and sandwich menu, the location shut down.
Re-surfacing in its new spot might be perplexing to traditional foodies. But it's a godsend to anyone who needs an honest meal at a fair price.
All-beef hot dogs are available in regular or big sizes and come in variations. A recent special was chili, bacon and cheese.
The classic is the Chicago dog ($3.59, $4.59) served in a warmed poppy-seed bun and topped with chopped onions, relish, a pickle wedge, tomato and celery salt. Detractors say it's more of a salad than a traditional hot dog, yet there's no denying the satisfying interplay of crunchy, soft, salty, tangy and sweet in one bite.
The chili cheese dog ($3.59, $4.59) is a formidable runner-up. An all-meat chili is slathered on top of the dog and the whole lot is sprinkled with cheese. Chips and a drink make it a combo, but a tangy and not overdressed macaroni salad is a better side.
Hot dogs are the sustenance of summer, reminding us of ballparks and grill outs. But I find myself returning to Johnniebeefs for the monstrous, messy and additive Italian beef sandwich ($5.69). Hot, tender slices of roast beef and spicy pickled peppers are mounded into a roll that's dipped in beefy juices. You decide the level of saturation.
Despite its mess, I highly recommend "wet," which might require a knife and fork to eat. But diehards go about tackling this generous sandwich with their hands, licking their fingers to get every simple and satisfying bit.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.