Restaurant Review: Allentown’s Zahra Continues Tradition of Mouthwatering Aladdin Staples and Specialties
SOURCE: THE MORNING CALL
BY: GLENN KOEHLER
While most restaurants struggle to make their 10 year anniversary, and far fewer see 40 years, even less continue to innovate after all that time. That’s why the opening of Zahra, in City Center’s new Downtown Allentown Market, was one of the most exciting announcements — among their many tenants.
Owned and operated by the Younes family, the same crew behind Allentown’s Aladdin restaurant that has been around in some form since 1981, it takes the restaurant’s winning recipe and distills it into market vendor form. Zahra (Arabic for cauliflower) is a nod to the restaurant’s fantastic arnabit, a dish it has honed over nearly four decades of experience.
Zahra has several grab-and-go items, making it easy and quick to snag something if you’re in a hurry during your lunch break or heading home from the office. Hummus, babaganouj, tabouli, and a variety of dips and salad options encompass these affordable and nicely portioned dishes.
If you have the time I’d certainly recommend getting one of their freshly prepared meals. Everything from arnabit bowls and wraps to shawarma and falafel, as well as kefta burgers, and more are available. Three different preparations of French fries (garlic, sesame and herb — called Zataar — and sumac) round out the sides.
If you’re still hungry, there’s baklava, the walnut and honey-stuffed phyllo dough dessert, or halva, a fantastic Middle Eastern dessert available in two different styles. There’s also a small selection of wines and beers to have with your food, as well as iced tea, Turkish coffee, lemonade, and mango juice.
Setting and décor
Given that Zahra is in the middle of a bustling market, the setting isn’t nearly as intimate or as fun as Aladdin, which frequently features belly dancing and a curated atmosphere that transports you to faraway lands. Still, they make do with stylized signage, “Make hummus not hate” t-shirts on the staff, and a clean black and white motif that looks modern and chic.
There are four seats at a counter on the side if you want to dine in and watch the food prep, or there’s ample seating throughout the market to dine and take in the views of the Arts Walk.
I went to Zahra with my wife and a few friends to try a delightfully large portion of the menu. My wife got the chicken shawarma wrap ($9), eschewing the pita and instead opting for it in bowl form. Chock full of colorful vegetables including shredded lettuce, red onion, diced tomatoes, quartered cucumber chunks, and a flavorful spice blend, the crown jewel was the amazingly delicious marinated chicken and a bright, zesty whipped garlic sauce.
Likewise, my friend’s kefta burger ($9) — which she got in bowl form — had large, freshly cooked and pressed ground beef patties that I’ll certainly be getting for myself on the next visit.
I had the steak shawarma wrap ($10), which incorporated many of the same vegetables and flavors into a tahini-laden delight that was wrapped perfectly, making for easy hand-held eating that didn’t leave a mess. I also got the sumac fries ($4) which was a slight portion, but had a taste pop of citrus from the sumac dust and an excellent texture.
Another friend settled for appetizers including falafel ($6) and the arnabit ($6), both of which were my favorites on the day. The falafel came with three small patties comprised of a superb chickpea, spice blend and was fried to a crisp dark brown and topped with immaculate tahini sauce, encircled in a colorful range of vegetables.
The same was true for the Zahra/arnabit. A paper container overflowed with deep oak brown cauliflower floating in tahini is hard to beat. She also had a takeout container of the tabouli ($7) which I stole a bite of. This heavy-on-the-parsley salad with a smattering of diced tomatoes and a simplistic (but vibrant) lemon and olive oil dressing was a winner. In fact, I would highly recommend getting one, if not all three, of these dishes to accompany your main course.
I finished our meal with chocolate halva ($3), a dessert I was not familiar with. A compact square of ground sesame and chocolate was gritty at first, but then the melt-in-your-mouth morsel was flavorful but not decadent, making for a tasty treat to end dinner.
While our orders were taken quickly and the market was not particularly busy on our visit, our food took a considerable amount of time to come out. Granted, the dishes are prepared fresh and right in front of us, but still seemed to take quite a while to prepare. Given this, I’d highly recommend to either get the grab-n-go options if you’re in a hurry, or plan ahead to make sure you have ample time to order and dine.
The bottom line
Zahra continues the delicious success that Aladdin started nearly 40 years ago in a new space that houses some of the most exciting new options in Allentown. Dinner for four totaled $57.24 with tax.
ZAHRA AT THE DOWNTOWN ALLENTOWN MARKET
Where: 27 N 7th St, Allentown
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. Sun.
Prices: Wraps/bowls: $8-$10; sides: $4; grab and go options: $1-$7; dessert: $2-$3
Bar: Beer and wine, and other options available at other stands.
Credit cards: Yes
Handicap accessible: Yes
Restaurant reviewer, Glenn Koehler, is a Morning Call contributor.