Standing Room Only: Zebda
4344 N Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60641 (map); 773-545-7000; zebdachicago.com
The Short Order: Freshly prepared Mediterranean food, including loads of salads.
Want Fries with That? No fries, but the fried items are impressive.
Seats? A few two-tops, but most orders to-go.
The key to successfully exploring Chicago's stands without inadvertently slipping into a grease coma is to switch things up. Of course, that's sometimes hard to do when the holy trinity of the scene tends to be meat, smoked meat, and encased meat (not there is anything wrong with that). Still, I'm not afraid to admit that sometimes I crave vegetables—and not ones that have been battered and fried (though I love those, too). This week I challenged myself to locate a stand that served a salad that I could actually get excited about. All roads led to Zebda.
Run by Mohammed Djeddour and Katie Garcia, the tiny shop in Irving Park features a menu of Algerian and Mediterranean dishes, with an excellent mix of grilled kebobs and lighter, vegetable-based dishes. Sure, there are a couple tables, but this is truly a to-go or delivery operation. In fact, its website makes it easy to plug in orders for pickup or delivery, relaying exactly when the order will be ready via e-mail.
A few years ago, Michael Nagrant wrote here about some of the excellent meat options, but Zebda is equally adept at dishing out fresh veggie-heavy mains.
That's best summed up by The Plate ($8), a combination platter featuring falafel, hummus, tabouleh, grape leaves, and Jerusalem salad. The latter item was a touch too watery, but that's the only complaint I have with the lot. The two falafel balls managed to stay crisp and light even after the 15 minute drive home, and the hummus was genuinely creamy instead of dry and chalky. Even the stuffed grape leaves, which are often neglected at Mediterranean joints, were well done.
To fulfill my salad requirement, I went with the Zebda Coucous Salad ($8). Sure, it comes with grilled chicken kebabs, but the pieces are small, and though good, it's really about the other ingredients. Light and distinct couscous hid hunks of grilled zucchini and eggplant, toasted almonds, and apricots. Lettuce bulked out the dish, while the harrisa dressing had enough depth to pull other elements together.
With all the good grains and vegetables, I knew one fried thing wasn't going to kill me. Still, it feels weird to describe the brie cigars ($6 for six) as light. They were remarkably crisp, lacking any visible grease. Also, instead of jamming in a huge hunk of brie, only enough was added to provide a molten, gooey center. Plus, it was served with refreshing apricot chutney, which helped balance each bite.
After those dynamic dishes, its understandable that the humble harrira ($3) came off as a little bland. Still, it was comforting, and on an especially cold night I can see this doing the trick.
All told, Zebda was exactly the sort of vegetable-heavy meal I needed. Of course, I barely dipped my toes into the meat side of the menu, which means I'll need to get back when the craving for grilled meat strikes.