On April 26, the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon after 29 years of domination. The political and economic motivations for the occupation were complex, but a recent visit to Reef Café was enough to reveal the real reason why the Syrians may have been reluctant to leave: the food. One meal at this small storefront in Allston is enough to make anyone dream of visiting Lebanon — and of staying put there.
The home-style food is extraordinary, and surprisingly different from more common conceptions of Middle Eastern cuisine. Hummus still tops the menu, but it’s unexpectedly fresh, balanced with more tahini than usual. It’s perfect as an appetizer ($5.25) or in a sandwich ($3.95) with tomatoes, olives, onions, and pickles. The Lebanese take on the ubiquitous meat pie, lamejun ($2.50), is another great way to start. The dough that curls up from its square base is soft and pizza-like, providing a great foundation for the slightly spicy crumbled lamb that sits on top. For a more unique treat, try the football-shaped kibbe ($1.50), Lebanon’s national dish. These unusual fritters have a shell of emulsified lamb and bulgur wheat, filled with more meat and pine nuts — a carnivore’s falafel that tastes much more appealing than it sounds.
Several specials ($7.95) are available daily; a stew of ground lamb and some vegetable like spinach or okra served over rice pilaf is always among them. More interesting options might include the whole zucchini stuffed with lamb and covered in a light tomato sauce, or the stuffed cabbage. Sandwiches are also a great way to go, especially if you’re eating on the run. Choices like the chicken kebab ($4.75), in a pita spread with a garlicky-lemon mayonnaise and browned in a panini press, are unequivocally delicious.
Reef’s tight quarters and few tables lack an exotic ambiance to match the food, but the outgoing family that owns and runs the place more than compensates for the styrofoam plates and plastic utensils. They’ll also encourage you to try delicacies that may make unaccustomed palates wary, like the bright fuchsia pickled turnips, the strangely sweetish pickles, and pita smeared with olive oil and the intriguing zaatar ($2), a mixture of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds believed to give strength and bolster the memory. The advice that you should really take to heart, however, is to try the baklava ($1.25). Filled with pistachios and drizzled with rosewater instead of just soaked in honey, it’s different from the Greek and Turkish versions of the dessert, and an ideal way to end an exciting meal.
Reef Café, located at 170 Brighton Avenue, in Allston, is open daily, from 11 a.m. to midnight. Call (617) 202-6366.