The chicken schnitzel with pita, garlic mayo and mejadara (lentil stew topped with yogurt and pickled red cabbage) at Cafe Raik. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Review: Cafe Raik’s fresh Middle Eastern classics are so easy to love

Duluth restaurant features ‘shawafel’ hybrid

It’s a humble little sandwich with a funny-sounding name: a portmanteau that sounds like what happens when you smash its two main ingredients — shawarma and falafel — into a pita pocket.

Dressed with scads of crunchy veggies and pickles, moistened with hummus, tahini and dill sauce, it lurks meekly on the Cafe Raik menu among more familiar concoctions like chicken schnitzel and baba ghanoush.

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The interior of Cafe Raik, a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant in Duluth. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

It’s called shawafel. Despite the clever-nonsensical name, it ranks as one of the most satisfying of the many excellent bites we tried at this squeaky clean, fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant in Duluth. Whether you stop by for a quick lunch or indulge in a feast of fine Middle Eastern standards, very little will disappoint.

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The fried eggplant appetizer at Cafe Raik in Duluth. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

Chef and co-owner Faik Usman, an Israeli-born Palestinian who opened Cafe Raik with his two brothers-in-law in 2014, is a master of clean, fresh-tasting tabbouleh; creamy hummus; and perhaps the best cauliflower I’ve yet to taste. His chicken schnitzel is uncharacteristically plump, fried to a crunchy golden brown, and begs to be dabbed with the garlic mayo that comes on the side. Fried eggplant is flipped in hot oil, smashed into chunks, aggressively seasoned with garlic, parsley, lemon, olive oil and a dab of chile paste. The longer it sits around, the better it tastes scooped up in pita.

Cafe Raik’s house salad, essentially tomato, cucumber, onion and herbs, is topped with salty white cheese, and it is delightful. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

When’s the last time you had a satisfying house salad? Almost never, right.

Then try the Raik salad. A simple bowl of chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, parsley and mint, dressed with lemon and olive oil and sprinkled with salty white Arabic cheese, it’s a variation on a classic served wherever kebabs are cooked on a flame, from Iran to Turkey to Israel. It’s a delicious accompaniment to the grilled meats and carbs you will be tempted to load up on here. (I should note that there are plenty of vegetarian options, too — including sandwiches filled with eggplant, cauliflower, lentils and falafel.)

At Cafe Raik, you can build your own appetizer sampler: three choices for $10.95. The spread is shown here with falafel, hummus and fried cauliflower. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

One good way to start a meal is a three-appetizer sampler. Falafel patties the size of golf balls are nicely seasoned. They can be a tad dry, but that’s nothing that a glug of hot sauce or a schmear of hummus won’t cure. That perfect cauliflower is fried in a crust so thin you can barely detect it, then drizzled with lemon and dill sauce. Mejadara — a warm dish of lentils, cracked wheat and tomatoes, drizzled with yogurt and purple cabbage — is hearty and filling.

On my first visit, which was near quitting time on a Thursday night, I found the beef shawarma to be a little crispy. I used it as a hummus topping, and scooped it up with pita.

Now about that workhorse flatbread: I must say I don’t love the fat pita triangles that come with most everything here. (Usman told me it’s outsourced.) Sometimes it is warm and soft, sometimes cold. The palm-shaped pockets used for sandwiches are another story, however, simply the edible envelope for transporting those bright and arresting Mediterranean flavors to your mouth.

The beef kebab with hand-cut fries at Cafe Raik. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

As for the kebabs, there’s only one version served here, and I’m crazy about it. Fashioned from ground beef seasoned with onion and parsley and molded on a skewer, nicely grilled but still oozing juices, it’s my favorite kind of meat on a stick. Stellar.

To drink, Cafe Raik serves house-made lemonade, mint lemonade, freshly squeezed carrot, orange and apple juices, espresso drinks and sludgy Arabic coffee. (Don’t stir it from the bottom; just sip.) It offers almond, cashew, walnut and pistachio baklava; rice pudding; creme brulee; chocolate cake, and salted caramel cheesecake. I didn’t get a chance to try anything sweet, because I didn’t want to ruin my salty bliss.

Cafe Raik’s shawafel, stuffed with a combination of chicken or beef shawarma and falafel, is a standout pita-pocket sandwich. It’s filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, pickles, garlic, hummus, tahini and dill sauce. It’s so perfect it deserves its own jingle. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

You know what I’m talking about, too.

Whether with beef or chicken shawarma, you need a shawafel in your life. Squirt it with hot sauce. Pair it with a side of the fantastic hand-cut fries. Just don’t share it. Only losers split an $8.95 shawafel. Tell your buddies to order their own and leave you be so you can scarf it down all by your lonesome.

CAFE RAIK

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Closed Sundays. 1160 Old Peachtree Road, Duluth. 770-476-7595, caferaik.com.

Recommended: Shawafel sandwich in pita. Fried cauliflower. Tabbouleh. Raik salad. Chicken schnitzel. Beef kebab. Hand-cut fries.

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