There are two Middle Eastern restaurants and hookah bars right next to each other on North Garey Avenue in Pomona. From the outside, they look exactly the same: red neon signs, lush enclosed patios, and local college students with laptops and hookahs.
But only one of them has sparkly black ceilings, a fish tank with no fish, and an enormous, cheesy mural full of Middle Eastern stereotypes. (Camels in a caravan! A spice market in the middle of the desert! A huge painting of a man who is totally not Disney’s Aladdin!) Oh yeah—and the food is really, really good.
At first glance, Aladdin Jr. might look like a strange cross between a strip-mall disco and a daycare center. But it serves some mighty fine falafel, as my dining partner and I discovered while sitting under the dubious, copyright-infringement rendering of Aladdin. The fact that this restaurant is open until 2 a.m. every day of the week, offering tasty, well-priced Middle Eastern food and some good shisha makes this place a potentially great hangout. They also have a ten-dollar lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, which my dining partner immediately insisted we attend soon.
I set out with two goals for this column. One, try a cuisine with which I had limited experience. Two, select a restaurant completely at random, or, in other words, have Groupon.com send me a good deal on restaurants in the Inland Empire. So far, I’d had horrid luck with restaurant choices, probably because I’d gone in with ideas about what the experience would be like. I was expecting kitsch when I entered Aladdin Jr., but one glare from not-Aladdin set me straight: This place does not particularly care what it looks like. It just wants to stuff you silly with falafel.
The meal started off strong with an enormous basket of warm pita quarters and a mysterious, savory dipping sauce–a black powder soaked in oil. “It’s olive oil, sesame seed, dried pomegranate,” the waiter began when asked about the ingredients. “Er…cumin, a bunch of herbs, I’m not really sure.” Neither of us particularly cared, though. It was smoky and salty and smooth and caused us to eat more pita than necessary.
I was shocked to discover that every falafel place where I have ever eaten before has lied to me. At Aladdin Jr., the falafel’s deep brown crust immediately shattered, giving way to a tender, green mash of chickpea, lava bean, onion, and cumin. Who thought it was okay to serve brown falafel, ever? Why have people tried to fool me all this time?
A spinach pie on the side was decent but lacking in the amount of spinach stuffing. The hot stuffed grape leaves with rice and lemon were nicely tangy and sticky on the inside, although I prefer them cold, an option also available on the menu. My dining partner got excited over the kebbey makleyye, a delicious sphere of ground meat and onion, coated in crushed wheat and deep-fried, falafel-style. Our only complaint was the cold center—it was cooked, but still evoked an unpleasant sensation.
We ordered an enormous plate of kebab, kafta, beef, and chicken. While the menu boasts some vegetarian salads and kebabs, meat is the clear star of the restaurant. It’s hard to mess up a tender, juicy kebab of filet mignon or a hand-molded kebab of ground beef and spices, but I couldn’t help being impressed when the chicken kebab turned out to be spectacular. I mean, chicken! It’s usually dry, overcooked, and stringy. But laced with a yogurt sauce? Rubbed with coriander and cumin and lemon? Chicken here is tender and moist. Yes, I will eat that often. The menu boasts quarter, half, and whole chickens as well, and frankly, the more chicken they offer, the better.
We finished off dinner with a plate of baklava, artistically drizzled with Hershey’s chocolate sauce (“That’s the first time they’ve paid that kind of attention to plating,” my dining partner sniffed.) Chocolate aside, the baklava achieved the Aristotelian ideal of baklava: flaky but not too flaky, sweet without an overdose of honey, and a firm base of pistachio and almond that balanced texture and nuttiness.
Aladdin Jr. has a lot of great things going for it, which is why I’m a bit surprised that Claremont students don’t make a bigger deal of this place. Take a step outside the Claremont bubble and treat yourself to some delicious, authentic Middle Eastern Cuisine.