It's 50 degrees and sunny in Chicago. When it's this nice, who wouldn't want to step outside for a good stroll? We have a small balcony that Gus uses to do his gardening and we thought it would be good timing for us to make the trek to Andersonville for his gardening supplies and maybe a foodie exploration. We used to frequent Sunshine Cafe and Adriatic Cafe, but sadly both restaurants have shut their doors. Looking around Yelp for a light lunch spot, we found Taste of Lebanon. A good decent amount of reviews (500+), 4.5 stars, 1 $ sign, but cash only. As a fan of Sultan Market (Clark St.), we were curious to see if this place can top our number one champ.
Location & Transportation
Taste of Lebanon is located on Foster Ave., slightly off of the main shopping street (Clark St.) in Andersonville. The restaurant is easy to find and it would be difficult for you to miss the huge red awning. For those of you who live in the downtown area like us and uses public transportation, I would suggest taking Bus #22 and get off near Foster Ave or the red line train heading towards Howard and get off at Berwyn station (5 minute walk will get you to Clark St).
Menu & Dining Room
The menu is very simple and all the items sold are visible from the top and bottom signage display at the cash register. There's only a few core dishes and the rest are various combinations of those dishes. Regular can sodas and juices are available for purchase from the refrigeration unit next to the register.
Wraps are the main thing here so we suggest trying your favorite choice of meat or go for the vegetarian options Special #1 or #2. If this is your first time, try Special #1 because the components will give you a well rounded taste of the appetizers available (sort of like an appetizer sampler plate).
There are about 8 dining tables (4-tops), but this place was packed Saturday 2pm. If you would like to dine in, expect at least 10 minutes wait for a table. Order first and let the staff know you are waiting for a table.
Taste & Quality
We didn't get to try everything on our first visit but we think we had a pretty good idea of the flavor profile here. Our taste assessment will be based on the following dishes that we sampled.
Special #1 showcased 3 main appetizers which were 3 falafel balls, hummus, and baba ganoush. The combo came with sliced pita bread basket, tahini sauce, tomatoes, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, unpitted olives, and pickled peppers.
We're a fan of falafels so we couldn't help but be critical of the falafel here. The taste was great, and they were served hot, but we thought a little more salt was needed to round out the flavor. Don't get us wrong, the falafel here was well executed and top notch but it still can't beat Sultan Market's fresh off the fryer falafel taste. However, Sultan's Market has problems with food quality and consistency so I would say that the falafel at Taste of Lebanon can beat Sultan's Market's falafel half of the time.
Baba ganoush's texture was creamy and viscous. The well made tahini sauce pairs well with the eggplant and we were surprised to be loving it. We're not fond of tahini sauce but this establishment made it palatable for us to the point that we actually have to rethink about tahini sauce in general.
Hummus was above average but we still preferred the slight acidic and less bitter taste of hummus from Sultan Market. The hummus here could be improved by adding more lemon juice and decrease the tahini component.
Tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers were fresh and cold. A nice added bonus was the pickled peppers which weren't spicy and were perfect companions for the shawarmas that we also ordered.
In terms of execution, the wraps were well constructed, cleanly layered, wrapped, and cut. There were some variations in the vegetables that goes into the wrap depending on the protein that you choose. The pita bread utilized here are large flat breads (imagine 10 inch pizza size), crepe thin, dense, and slightly tough to chew.
Chicken shawarwa was interestingly spiced with an emphasis on cinnamon. It reminded us of a 5-spice pre-mixed seasonings that we had purchased from Argyle Vietnamese stores to which we used it once and never used it again because of the strong cinnamon blend. We weren't fond of the cinnamony notes, while the lettuce and onions didn't enhance the overall flavor of the wrap either. In our opinion, the chicken shawarma wrap was sub-par and we would've like it better if the seasonings were adjusted.
As for the beef shawarma, we think this version is the better of the two. The beef was was tender in texture and we could tell the quality was good. The wrap came with tomatoes, onions, and tabouleh. The seasoning was again on the bland side. If you like intense and well seasoned food like us, you would probably need some sauce to create the flavor contrast which the restaurant provides sambal olek and ketchup or maybe just dunk it in the delicious tahini sauce.
Service & Operation
One of the most important criteria in terms of what constitutes a good restaurant is cleanliness. As food practitioners (not professional yet!), HACCP is critical in food operations and it extends beyond just the kitchen but also to the dining room. Taste of Lebanon seems to uphold their standards quite well and even offers a hand washing station for customers right next to the dishing out station.
Mind you, this is a casual establishment, and a very popular one. You might have to wait for a table as previously mentioned, but the food will be served to you at your table. Despite being so busy at the time when we were there, the service team did a great job noting the new dine-in customers and cleaned the tables after each serviced dine-in customers. We were truly impressed because Sultan's Market didn't even put in the same attention as these guys. As an added bonus, the service team served complimentary plastic cups of cold water to dine-in customers who didn't purchase bottled/canned drinks without having to ask. Taste of Lebanon makes Sultan's Market look like amateurs.
The gentlemen at the cash register was friendly and polite. He took our orders well, remembered who we were since we didn't have a table yet, and brought our food to the table accurately. We sat near the register and we could hear his consistent polite interactions with other customers as well. Although there were a lot of actions going on in the open kitchen, people weren't yelling and cussing. Food wait time was reasonable despite the long line of customers. Everyone knew what they were doing and the service was smooth. We weren't expecting this caliber of service for such an establishment. Kudos to the management team for great hire/training!
The verdict. Gus and Jenny give this place a thumbs up! We can see how this place can be a local's favorite. The staffs were pros in making sure that customers were well taken cared of. If we were to live nearby, I would imagine frequenting the establishment quite a bit. Taste of Lebanon deserves a return, however, the flavor profile is still not worth the trek for us to travel all the way here without having some other errands within the same area. Some dishes exceeded Sultan's Market while some didn't. It's probably a matter of personal preference, but we think that the falafel, baba ganoush, and tahini sauce were well executed. We had a revolutionary experience with their tahini sauce so we would still say this establishment is worth the try. In addition, service is by far the most impressive for the price range. We would definitely return when visiting the area and will order Special #1 combo again.
~ Jenny & Gus
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