Change from 100: La Alhambra

La Alhambra´s stuffed vine leaves cost 35 pesos for 14.
Despite having a penchant for a ham-and-cheese toasted sandwich in pan árabe from the work canteen on a far too daily basis, much to the detriment of my expanding waistline, the inner healthy me is often begging for some alternative tasting kind of snack to get me through the working day.

In fact, supported by a former colleague, the two of us kicked up a small amount of fuss in a fairly dignified way as we campaigned for fruit salads to make it onto the menu. And lo and behold, ask for what you want and you shall get it. As soon as spring sprang, there were fresh pots of fruity salads awaiting me.

But I crave, desire, want and sometimes even need some totally different kind of foodstuffs. A dollop of hummus waiting for some fingers of toast to dip into them, maybe a sandwich with mustard to bring out the ham…

So it was with baited breath when I got wind of some vine leaves, left over from New Year, that needed a home. Rich pickings that wouldn‘t wilt in the afternoon sun which had been made by people in the know from Confitería Armenia on Scalabrini Ortiz and Cabrera, I waited like an anxious adoptive mother for colleague Paige to bring in the little stuffed leaves, sometimes called niños envueltos.

Generous enough to share them round, I was muchly relieved when no one bar Paige, who knew their true worth, and Archie, who knew what they were, took me up on the offer of a succulent stuffed vine leaf. Of course, the canteen staff thought I’d lost the plot, munching down leaves like an ant.

The point of all this is that whether you consider them to be Greek, Armenian, Lebanese or Turkish, and whether they are stuffed with lamb mince, mackerel or sun-dried tomatoes, I wanted some more stuffed vine leaves and some sister food to go with. First port of call? The ever-popular Sarkis.

Starting with the positive, the Armenian eaterie in Villa Crespo will give you change from 100. Remember the rules? Dinner for two, including soft drinks for both diners and change from 100 pesos. Sarkis’ reputation for good value precedes it, but perhaps a new rule needs to be added in: enjoying what you eat.

I’ve been several times, and have always come away full and happy. But such is its reputation, the whole world and his dog wants to eat there, and queuing for an hour is unacceptable to me.

Granted it was a Saturday night, inevitably busy, but after the first 30 minutes I thought I needed to see this waiting through. So we did, were ushered to the quieter upstairs compared with the bustling ground floor, and took on some menu classics. The hummus had clearly missed the tahini turning as it mainly tasted of peanut butter. It was also a bad night for the tabbouleh — which was missing mint, light on flat parsley and overcompensated on the scallion — while the meat dishes, kebbe and a kafta kebab, were simply greasy concoctions which tasted the same and merely differed in shape.

Discarding one meat dish from the selection means you will get change from 100 and probably squeeze in a beer too, but I left Sarkis that night with a growling tummy, and not because it was hungry.

Not prepared to admit defeat but less than happy after my Sarkis experience, I vowed to Mr Links that there simply had to be somewhere serving up similar dishes but without the 60-minute wait that could also give me change from 100 and could leave me full yet content. Is panza llena, corazón contento too much to ask for?

La Alhambra considers itself to be an Arabian eaterie, and it’s so discreet and tucked away it would be easy to never, ever stumble across it, despite its fairly central Palermo location. And if its three downstairs tables and sofa are full, fear not, there’s an upstairs too.

The menu doesn‘t steer much from the “classic” Middle-Eastern food path — hummus, falafel, vine leaves and the like — but given that it is a far smaller restaurant, a bit more love probably goes into these dishes’ preparation. And not just love but also the correct ingredients. However, Mr Links, who frequents the joint, did note “that the nice lady from the kitchen has gone” and had been replaced by a young man, certainly that night.

Although the hummus, too, was lacking a dollop of tahini, at least its presence was noted. The baba ghanoush was impeccable: the smokey aubergine taste came right through, and I wish we’d ordered the full-size bowl instead of a half-portion. The taboulleh was also spot on, and included everything necessary – and also the mint, which makes it so refreshing on a steamy January night.

The key to ordering at La Alhambra is to order half-size portions where you can so you get to have go on everything, and the restaurant exactly halves the price instead of adding on extra money for no apparent reason — the hummus and baba ghanoush cost 10 pesos each.

What was extravagant was the price of the mineral water at 12 pesos a bottle, a price I‘d expect from Tegui, Sucre or some other ultra-swanky joint, not at what is essentially an Arabian café.

But it’s number-crunching time, hungry tums, and after selecting the aforementioned two dips, 14 stuffed vine leaves for 35 pesos, impeccable taboulleh at 20 pesos, plus all the bread we wanted as well as soft drinks, we got back 100 centavos to not spend all at once from 100 pesos.

Thames 1101, Villa Crespo
Tel 4772-4911

La Alhambra
Charcas 4309, Palermo
Tel: 4777-4656

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