Enter Ali Baba’s Cave for superlative shawarma

MICHAEL ARES/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER

Ali Baba’s Cave bears a somewhat comical resemblance to a real cave. It’s dark inside, and the light that does make it through the window lands on two spinning towers of shawarma meat. They’re the heart of Ali Baba’s Cave, a salute to the days before Valencia Street gave a damn about what cavemen ate.

Middle Eastern staples on Ali Baba’s menu – tabouli, hummus, baba ganoush – are served from tin pans at the room’s center. They’re mainstays of any good falafel stop.

But the shawarma steals the show.

While I love a good falafel as much as the next antsy drunkard looking for a god-sent fried sandwich, the shawarma, in all its cumin-specked, slowly rendered glory, is my favorite. I like fire-kissed lamb and beef shreds rolled into a saucy mélange of yogurt-swamped cucumbers, hummus and fried potatoes, with a delicate smear of hot sauce. That, and a fat mouthful of fried eggplant.

The Ali Baba combination is the best option, a mix of well-spiced chicken and turkey from the shawarma broiler, thrown on the grill with eggplant, zucchini and tomato rolled together tightly in lavash. The vegetables add structure to the sandwich, the crisp zucchini nicely balancing the meat.

Accepting the hot sauce at Ali Baba’s (which you should, always), adds a whisper of heat. It’s a perfect amount, enough to touch the back of your throat, but not nearly enough to drown out the meat. And if you know what’s good for you, you will pay the extra 75 cents to add fried eggplant to any order.

Diners with a primal desire for piles of meat should try the kebabs. Ali Baba’s offers lamb, chicken (and vegetables). Punctuated by clips of onion and bell pepper, served with a choice of salads — baba ganoush, tahini, green salad or tabouli — the kebabs are long and generous. The meat is sometimes, and it hurts me to say, overdone and undersalted, but a good dip into the baba ganoush and buttery turmeric rice seems to balance things out.

Now, back to the falafel. It’s is what “the Cave” is known for, and it’s worth taking a slow, attentive tour through the sandwich. Lavash is slathered with the requisite combination of hummus, parsley, fried potatoes, red onion and cilantro. Inside are balls of garlicky chickpeas shocked green with parsley and cilantro. Crumbly but moist, they have a soft interior and a delicious crackling crust from a moment in the fryer.

The best thing about Ali Baba’s is its constancy, the permanence of its shadowy cavern, and its seeming ignorance of the rapid flux from money coming into the Valencia Street corridor. Inside, the biggest concern seems to be whether the chicken is ready to come off the grill or if the tahini needs fluffing. (It always needs fluffing.) Take it to go or take it to stay, but whatever you do, always eat it hot.

Ali Baba’s Cave
Location: 799 Valencia St., S.F.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Contact: (415) 863-3054
Recommended dishes: Ali Baba’s combination ($7.95), super falafel sandwich ($6.50), lamb shish kebab ($11.95)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not acceptedAli Baba’s CavefalafelFood & DrinkFood and WineshawarnaValencia Street

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