Best Middle Eastern restaurants in Chicago
It’s a no-nonsense room with no-nonsense service and a no-nonsense menu—and yet, for quick, dependable Middle Eastern grub, this tiny restaurant makes perfect sense. The lentil soup has an addictive peppery flavor, and it threatens to fill you up. But leave room for the creamy baba ghanoush and hummus, and especially for the lamb kebab wrap, a thin pita stuffed with full-flavored ground-lamb patty, parsley and tahini. (You can skip the overly thick beef shawarma wrap, though.) Picking up a piece of baklava here may seem odd, given that the Middle Eastern Bakery is right across the street, but since you’re being sensible, why make an extra stop?
There isn’t much competition in Middle Eastern food around the Bridgeport ’hood, but Zaytune still operates as if it’s in a race for first. The simple, casual, carryout spot has a handful of tables, but most locals hover near the counter for a view of the action: Lebanese-style pita is stretched and baked daily, eggplants are bathed in herbs and olive oil before hitting the grill, falafel is formed on the fly then dropped into the fryer, and sheet pans of honey-soaked kinafa are sliced into squares with Jack-the-Ripper precision. It’s all flavorful, all fresh and all the area has of its kind—just don’t tell Zaytune that.
Load up on Middle Eastern food on the cheap at the wonderful bakery and grocery store. Besides great values on coffee, nuts and dried fruits, all sold by the pound, cases lining the wall are stuffed with a wide variety of hummus, grape leaves and spicy baba ganoush. A counter in back serves premade savory hand pies, like artichoke and cheese in a flaky crust.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a grandparent sitting at home frying up batches of falafel, this may be the freshest Middle Eastern food you’ll find in Chicago. The refrigerated case is filled with rows of plump, glistening, marinated chicken and just-formed kefta kebabs waiting to be grilled to order. Freshly baked savory pies, bursting with spinach and big chunks of onion, sit on the counter. Behind that, a man drops falafel into a pool of bubbling oil. We don’t care who your grandma is—she’s not making anything like this.
If the city were flooded with Persian joints tomorrow, this spot would still be packed. There’s something about the casual room brightened with colorful tile murals, the smoky baba ghanoush, the cinnamon-and-tomato-braised lamb shank and those tender chicken kebabs, charred outside but still juicy inside, plopped down on deliciously fluffy rice alongside charbroiled tomatoes and onions. A cup of Persian tea to follow, and we’re in heaven.
With a falafel joint on every corner, the Loop is competitive territory in which to open a Middle Eastern restaurant. Fortunately, Naf Naf (which has locations in the suburbs) is a veritable lion, a place whose creamy falafel, juicy chicken shawarma or crispy chicken schnitzel can easily go head-to-head with any existing quick-serve spot in the city. The secret to the success: exceptional condiments and the just-out-of-the-oven pitas (rolled and baked on site).
On a sunny day, this Lebanese café is warm and full of light. On darker days, the food provides the sunniness. The fattoush salad provides forkfuls of bright, tart flavors, and the basket of warm pita begs to be slathered with foul—fava beans cooked with olive oil and garlic to make a tangy, spreadable paste. Sandwiches, like a chicken wrap, and tender kebabs are prepared skillfully, and everything benefits from a slather of the housemade garlic sauce, toum. Pair the maamoul cookies with a cup of rich cardamom-laced coffee.