Jerusalem-Style Grilling at Manara Restaurant in Bridgeview
I first wrote about the Middle Eastern enclave in and around south suburban Bridgeview for Time Out Chicago in 2009, and I can return to the subject regularly, because there's always something new there (which you can't really say about Middle Eastern on the North Side). What's most exciting about this area—whose Arab population is mostly Palestinian, and thus serves food pretty authentic to what you would find in Jerusalem these days—is that so much of the grilling is done over live coals. It's one of Chicagoland's barbecue capitals.
The Jerusalem-style of grill is a kind of metal trench which you might mistake for a planter, if it weren't on fire. Burning coals are piled up in it, and then the meats to be grilled are threaded on metal skewers just long enough to rest on the grill directly over the coals.
These kinds of grills have existed in Dearborn, Michigan (arguably the best community for Middle Eastern food in the U.S.) for a while, but the first to have them here was Al-Bawadi, located in a former Taco Bell in the parking lot of the shopping mall at 87th and Harlem. Some employees of Al-Bawadi broke away and launched Al-Mawal a couple of miles down Harlem in Worth, and a third location using live coals came along when the owner of the Loop's Haifa Cafe took over a banquet hall at 8310 S. Harlem and opened Manara Restaurant.
Why am I going on about live coals? Because everything tastes a million times better over them, frankly, and makes ordinary Middle Eastern food taste, well, extraordinary. Chunks of chicken, shish-kebobs, kifta—whatever it is, the smoky flavor of live fire lifts it to wonderful. The owner clearly considers it worth the effort, since he not only goes to the expense of the charcoal but recruited an expert tender of the meats from Jordan, with 40 years experience. If you've ever watched a chef work a robata grill with Japanese precision, here's his Middle Eastern brother.
All this is good because otherwise Manara isn't the most charming place you've ever been to—the dining room is basically just the lobby outside the banquet hall, and whatever disco music is booming in there will be shared with you every time a cart full of food goes by to the wedding-or-whatever guests inside there. Doesn't matter, though—the fires on the one side more than outweigh the Saturday night fever on the other.