3750 W. 80th Ln., Merrillville, IN 46410
QISA (3.5, 3.5, 4, 4), Vegetarian-Friendly, $5-9
Well, now I have three reasons to stop in Merrillville, Indiana. The first, of course, is that sometimes I need to fill up on gas on my way through to Chicago. The second, is the Albanese Candy Factory, a maker of fine gummies (not vegetarian) and chocolates (hopefully vegetarian) with a show room that will make you feel like a…well…you know, kid in a candy store. Their billboards along the highway are colorful, showy, and guaranteed to make your children harangue you into stopping, no matter how late you are running.The third reason is Aladdin Pita, a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant in the unlikeliest of strip malls in the unlikeliest of towns. One simply does not expect to find wonderfully tasty falafel, hummus, pita, tziziki, and baba ganoush next door to an establishment named the Dawg House Pub.
I list the restaurant as Vegetarian-Friendly, and it truly is. I counted at least ten ovo-lacto or vegan entrees on the menu. All of the vegetarian dishes are clearly marked on the menu, which always gives me much greater confidence than a waiter who hedges before saying, “uh, yeah, sure it’s vegetarian. Yeah. You can eat fish, right?”
My meal began with a bowl of yellow split pea soup. I found the soup a bit too salty for my taste until I squeezed the accompanying slice of lemon into the bowl, and then suddenly the soup was a savory blend of salty, sour, and a touch of umame. The soup came with a bowl of soft pita bread and four dips: baba ghanoush, hummus, Arabian salad (cucumber, tomato, parsley, and mint), and yoghurt salad (cucumber, yoghurt, mint, parsley, and olive oil). The yoghurt salad surprised me the most. It tasted like tziziki, but it had chunks of cucumber which made it somewhere between a dip and salad. Really good either way you look at it. The hummus leaned more to the tahini than to the garlic and lemon, but was very tasty. The pita was baked just enough to be soft on the inside but still have some integrity on the outside. And that was just the first course.
I ordered the pita pie as an appetizer, which turned out to be a triangular pita wrapped around a filling of spinach, meat, or cheese. I opted for the spinach, which had a tang of lemon in it. Personally, I would have recommended adding some feta to the spinach to make it taste more like spanakopita, but it worked pretty well as is.
I also ordered the falafel sandwich, which was fried to near perfection. The falafel balls had just the right crispy outside, surrounding a soft green center, most likely due to plenty of parsley in the falafel. The falafel and pita sandwich came with tahini, cucumber-tomato salad, lettuce, onion, and tomato. The falafel were tasty, but not spicy. I was tempted to ask for hot sauce, but I was afraid that asking for unrepresented condiments would make me look like an accidental tourist at best and a rube at worst. Or vice versa. Or perhaps like an accidental rube.My QISA ratings reflect a well-prepared flavorful meal that was just a little too salty to get a 4 Quality rating. However, the wait staff were incredibly polite and attentive, the decor included a mural that looked like the inside of a mosque, and the aural ambience included Arabic music. Nothing ruins an ethnic meal faster than the sound of American pop music coming over the loudspeakers.
The total cost of the meal, including mango juice and french fries, was just over $17, which was pretty good since I ordered way more food than I needed. I rolled out of the establishment incredibly sated. It would be a good hour before I dipped into my bag from the Albanese Candy Factory.Finally, in deference to the good people of Merrillville, I apologize about my glibness regarding the lack of attractions in your burg. I neglected to mention Deep River Waterpark, the Indiana Ballet Theatre, the Star Plaza Theatre, and all the other wonderful places I don't yet know about, such as maybe the famous Merrillville Hanging Gardens or the largest ball of dryer lint in the world.
But for now, accept it that most people are just passing through for candy. And pita.