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After that charming introduction, I felt like I was trapped in an episode of Punk'd: Restaurant Edition. We didn't so much leave the restaurant that night as flee.
When I went back to Al Bawadi, though, my initial impressions of the two places became even more divided. The night I arrived, the restaurant was mostly empty again. And with its dim lighting and staid décor of dull earth tones, the place was about as inviting as a winter day in Michigan.
But this time, instead of waiting at the door like uninvited guests, we were quickly greeted by our waitress, an attractive young woman who had the sort of charm you find in roadside diners all across the South. She set my friend Frank and I up with two shared platters, one a combination of almost every appetizer the restaurant offered ($18.99), another a spread of each type of grilled kebab ($14.99). We munched on vinegary pickled beets and a spread of salty olives as our parade of plates arrived, nearly a dozen selections from the two platters.
212 S. Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL 33432
Region: Boca Raton
Al Bawadi, 1787 N. University Drive, Plantation. Open for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 954-693-0986.
What a feast 30-some bucks and a little open-mindedness will net you at Al Bawadi. Among the litany of small plates was kibbeh, fried balls of bulgur and beef that look like oblong eggs served with a salad of mint and parsley-flecked tabbouleh. A huge mound of baba gannouj, smooth as creamy peanut butter, begged to be dipped into with a basket of warm pita bread. We swiped up the roasted eggplant dip and worked in bits of tomato-cucumber salad to make miniature wraps, sometimes adding bits of ground lamb kofta that was presented in long, juicy spears. The only thing more expansive than the three other types of chicken and beef kebabs, almond-flecked rice pilaf, and warm, stuffed grape leaves was the real and imposing challenge of trying to eat all of what was presented to us. Still, we tried mightily, pausing only to laugh at the two children spilling through the restaurant's tables as their parents (one of two other tables present) struggled to eat in peace.
Granted, it's not as much fun to eat small plates in a nearly vacant restaurant as one jumping with life. But I had reconciled that fact thanks to Al Bawadi's nearly flawless incarnation of falafel. Those fried little balls of love are what great street food is all about: crisp but greaseless, moist and musty, with the aroma of chickpeas and garlic. And its hummus is the stuff of dreams: so smooth, so creamy, so intensely flavored. An oval plate of the spread is like a shimmering portal, and at its center is a pond of lemon juice and EVOO so pure and striking that I wanted to bathe in it and towel off with a pita afterward.
Of course, Al Bawadi's food wasn't flawless either. The shish kebabs were a little dry and bland and the grape leaves a touch soggy. But not once did I feel abused, like I had after my meal at Anatolia.
I don't expect the crowds that gather at Anatolia to switch teams because Al Bawadi makes a better falafel. Dining out, after all, is about far more than what's on the plate, and I'm sure Anatolia's successes have as much to do with that amazing first impression as the few dishes it does get right. But armed with a bit of levity and a willingness to look past your surroundings, a little joint like Al Bawadi has just as much to offer.