Because of my own Middle Eastern heritage, I tend to be very picky about Middle Eastern food. I once asked a Korean friend where the best Korean restaurant was in OKC. She responded, “my house.”
I get it. It’s difficult to find a restaurant that makes your culture’s food as well as your mother/aunt/grandmother did. Plus there’s the added pressure that you want the restaurant to represent your culture well to those who don’t share your background and haven’t tried the food before.
That being said, I have found some great dishes in the restaurants of Oklahoma City that remind me of my family’s food. So here are some of my favorite places for particular Middle Eastern foods in OKC.
If you’ve never had Middle Eastern food before, this is a great place to start. Kofta is basically the Middle Eastern hamburger: ground beef spiced with cumin, mint, and such and served either in bread as a sandwich or as an entrée with rice.
One of the best spots in OKC for kofta in my opinion is Simply Falafel in Edmond. I like to get their grilled kofta as a sandwich along with their tasty tomato soup.
Falafel is sometimes described as a veggie burger. While that may be technically accurate, it isn’t perhaps the most positive way to describe the deliciousness of these fried balls of goodness. Falafel is made with either fava beans or chickpeas, depending on what region of the Middle East you’re in. In the US, restaurants tend to serve falafel made with chickpeas, since those are easier to find here.
Unfortunately falafel in American restaurants tends to taste more like bad hush puppies, greasy with little flavor. By far, the best falafel in OKC is at Mediterranean Imports and Deli. It is crisp on the outside, soft on the inside with its chickpea dough and altogether flavorful, perhaps even the slightest bit spicy. Get it in the sandwich, served in pita bread with lettuce, tomato, pickled radishes, and drizzled with tahina and a spicy brown sauce. So good!
By the way, tahina is one of the main ingredients of hummus and while you’re here, you should go ahead and get the freshly made hummus appetizer; it’s also delicious. (Mediterranean Deli is one of several great international markets in OKC!)
Americans have likely embraced the gyro the quickest of all Mediterranean food, making it one of the most popular Middle Eastern items in the States. There are too many places that serve gyros in OKC for me to have tried them all. But the place that will always have a spot in my heart when I think of amazing gyros is the Greek House in Norman.
This hole-in-the-wall restaurant across from the University of Oklahoma has been serving gyros (and pretty much only gyros) for years to many happy customers. The Greek couple who started the restaurant has now retired back to Greece, but the new owners have tried to keep the same traditions and the food is still fantastic.
Don’t expect anything fancy here. It’s a small place where the main attraction is those spinning poles of meat. It’s so popular that they added multiple rotisseries and I remember the restaurant workers being able to wear shorts in the winter, because it got so warm in there! Make sure to bring cash (no cards taken) to get yourself some of the delicious and very generous portions of doner meat in a sandwich or with a Greek salad.
Best Middle Eastern Desserts:
Well, first a confession. My family doesn’t make Middle Eastern desserts with rose water traditionally and though I can tolerate the taste, I don’t enjoy it. I know many Middle Easterners love it, so it’s hard for me to give fair judgment here.
Personally I love the Moroccan almond cake at CousCous. The thin light layers of cake interspersed with layers of cream and wrapped in crushed nuts just melt in your mouth. (For dinner beforehand, try their tagines, succulent lamb or beef dishes cooked in clay pots! Or have the mussaka, an eggplant dish topped with creamy bechamel.)
The signature Middle Eastern dessert baklava with its flaky layers of phyllo dough intertwined with butter and nuts is a challenging pastry to make. A good baklava can’t be soggy from the syrup nor too crunchy from the dough getting over-baked. And it certainly shouldn’t be adulterated with chocolate drizzled on top! (Why would you make a rich dessert even sweeter?)
I have to confess I’m so picky about Middle Eastern desserts that my favorite place for baklava and pastries in OKC doesn’t even make their desserts locally. Nunu’s gets their pastries from Masri Sweets in Michigan and those are by far my favorites. Nunu’s is very popular with my Lebanese friends (and those who aren’t Lebanese!). If you go, get the massive cabbage rolls there.
Best Middle Eastern Drinks:
You can’t visit the Middle East (or any Mediterranean family’s home) without enjoying a cup of hot tea. Even in the middle of the summer!
OKC’s Basil Mediterranean Café showcases their Persian saffron tea well, serving it with honey as a sweetener. But you can also choose from 9 other flavors other than this traditional black tea, such as cardamom, Moroccan mint, black cherry, strawberry, and lemon green.
Alongside their tea, you may want to have their impressive vegetable sampler, featuring dolmas, falafel, spanakopita, hummus, pita, and even grilled asparagus.
I first tried mint lemonade in Israel and instantly fell in love with it. No, it might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Middle Eastern food, but it’s actually quite popular in that region!
In fact, the story behind mint lemonade is quite funny. While the exact origin of the drink in the Middle East is unknown, it became popular in Israel when it was created as part of a marketing strategy to see if people would pay attention to ads on street buses. Basically they put these fake ads advertising mint lemonades on buses, calling it limonana. (This is a play on words; in Hebrew, limon means lemon, as you likely guessed, and nana means mint.) Soon people were asking about where to get it, even though the brand didn’t exist yet! Now it does, thankfully.
Jerusalem Café in Edmond does a wonderful rendition of mint lemonade that is like a slushy with crushed ice and fresh mint leaves. It’s not very sweet and so refreshing. Perfect for a summer day in Oklahoma!
If you go to Jerusalem Café, try their okra dinner. In the Middle East, it is common to serve vegetables with some beef and tomato sauce over rice. You don’t find it in many restaurants here, but the okra plate at Jerusalem Café reminds me of many dishes I’ve had at my relatives’ homes and is very tasty.
Now if we can just get a place in OKC that sells sahlab, the sweet creamy drink served hot. Let me know if you know of anyone doing that!
Naturally, the best way to enjoy Middle Eastern food is in someone’s home, with a dash of the typical hospitality and generosity. But if you can’t do that, we have many great options in OKC for our cuisine!
What’s your favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in OKC? Share in the comments!