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Compared to other Mediterranean restaurants around Houston, Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine can feel like an entirely new kind of restaurant. There are no glass vials of complimentary tea, no spinning spits of doner meat; in fact, there are hardly even menus. Instead, patrons walk through the noisy dining room picking any combination of meat and sides from a vibrant display of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern salads, meats and dips. The experience can be hectic, especially for those visiting on a Friday or Saturday night, when the dining room is likely to be packed with a lively dinner crowd taking advantage of Aladdin’s BYOB policy. But Aladdin’s rotating cast of authentic meats and sides more than justifies braving the crowded dining room and sometimes confusing menu. 

While some entrees can be ordered a la carte, the standard order at Aladdin is a $10-$14 combo meal that includes a meat and two or three sides. The combo meal format may remind customers of airport meals or unappetizing Chinese buffets, but it works quite well at Aladdin, where the food turns over quickly enough to avoid certain dishes sitting unordered over tepid pans of water. The system actually allows Aladdin to incorporate many less-common dishes like eggplant with spinach pesto and Turkish meatballs that other restaurants aren’t always able to keep on the menu. The most significant problem with the system is the confusion between what counts as a side and what’s complimentary. 

The menu changes nightly based on what meats are available and what salads are fresh, but some standouts and classics tend to be available more consistently. The chicken and lamb kebabs are exceptional. The smoky lamb is served with a tangy dill tzatziki and the chicken is tenderized with a lemony marinade before being char-grilled and served with garlic sauce. The chicken shawarma is also quite satisfying, but lacks the tender succulence of other shawarmas cooked using the traditional rotisserie method. 

The numerous sides are delightfully fresh and range from ubiquitous Mediterranean sides like tabbouleh, at which Aladdin strikes a great balance between sweet, juicy tomatoes and astringent lemon-vinegar dressing, and less traditional salads like button mushrooms with olive oil, lemon and sweet peppers. The fresh vegetables make nearly all the salads worth trying, but even the salads made with dry ingredients like lentils or rice can also be outstanding. The lentil salad is cooked perfectly al dente and the saffron rice pilaf has warm and comforting touches of cumin and cinnamon that offer a pleasant contrast to the other salads’ more acidic flavors. The dips are not as uniformly good. The caramelized onion hummus is overly sweet and the occasional slimy sliver of onion gives it an off-putting texture. Yet, the more traditional spicy roast pepper hummus is better, with just enough cayenne and charred pepper to give it a bold edge. 

The fresh and filling meals make Aladdin an ideal spot for Saturday night dinners. Its atmosphere may not be well suited for an intimate date or a special event, but for the money, it’s hard to get a better meal with as much authenticity and flavor.