I didn’t know what to expect when Robin, JC and I pulled up in front of The Palm Trees restaurant this weekend. Maybe Lawrence of Arabia posters on the wall. Or decorative trays of sand from the Mideast. Maybe a palm tree, or two. Perhaps a tent pole in one corner. I was adventure seeking on Cherokee Street, which can be great fun.
A Touch of Arabia on Cherokee Street
But the tidy little restaurant is not decked out like a Hollywood movie set. The walls are covered in subway tiles draped with fabric and woven mats, that might be seen in a Saudi home or restaurant. If you wish, there’s a large backroom decorated with pillows and cushions for dining in the traditional manner, that is, eating from trays while reclining on the floor.
I had read that the owner of the Saudi Arabian restaurant—the only one of its kind in the area—was Fedaa Alsadeq and her husband, who is an engineer by profession. But they were not around when we were there. Greeting us was a nice young man named Murtada, who explained that he was now part of the ownership and management. Imagine our surprise when we learned that he previously lived in Rolla, where he owned and ran a smoothie shop near the university.
Before long we were swapping stories. I recounted a repast I had with the King of Oman 15 years ago and my recollection of a fancy dagger given my father-in-law by King Ibn Saud during a post-World War II visit.
In between the pleasant chitchat, we got around to placing our order. The meal began with a complimentary cup of lentil soup. It ended with a golden dish filled with dates and a cup of cardamom-laced coffee. I later learned that serving the date/coffee combo is a symbol of generosity and hospitality. Nice touch.
Century Old Food Customs
Our appetizer tray of hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel were tasty treasures from a long culinary tradition. One entree was called Mandi. The Saudi mainstay, features a hearty lamb shank, tender and juicy, garnished with fried onions. Mandi comes from an Arabic word meaning “dew”, and reflects the moist ‘dewy’ texture of the meat. Traditionally, the meat is soaked in a tandoor—a hole dug in the ground, lined with clay, and heated with charcoal. The meat is then suspended over the fire. A vented lid allows the release of excess smoke.
From Kebabs to Kabsa
Robin and I split the Special Meat Platter. It turned out to be a huge dish of food. More than enough for the two of us. The order comes with a chicken and beef kebab, accompanied by Shawarma and a heap of colorful basmati rice. This signature meal is definitely one I’d order again.
But I also want to try another ancient dish from the area—Kabsa. The rice, meat, vegetable combination is typically seasoned with cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, bay leaves, and nutmeg. Almonds, nuts, onions and raisins make for a tasty trimming.
There’s so much more to explore on this menu. And I would also like to meet Fedaa, who got the whole thing started. After succumbing to all the wonderful spices and flavors, you can see how T.E. Lawrence was attracted to the culture more than a century ago.
The Palm Trees. 2837 Cherokee St. in Benton Park West. Open: Wed-Thu 11a-8p; Fri-Sat 11a-10p; Sun 11a-8p. Closed Monday and Tuesday (though management is considering expanded hours).