Al-Safa (Bab Al-hara) Restaurant
960 Main Street, NJ 07503
Web Site: http://babalharapaterson.com/
In a previous post about the very excellent Al Basha Palestinian restaurant, I spoke a bit about the Middle-Eastern community on Main Street in South Paterson, which my friend Victor Sasson likes to refer to as “Little Damascus”, due to the large population of Syrian-owned businesses there.
My forays into South Paterson have been limited, mainly due to my general lack of familiarity with the Arabic language. I’ve certainly eaten a ton of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, primarily Israeli, , Lebanese and Turkish, but in the Bergen County area. For lack of a politically correct way of saying it, being a Jew and someone of clear Semitic ethnic origin by general physical appearance and given the current geopolitical climate, historically I would tend to not venture into a predominantly Arabic-speaking area of New Jersey for shopping and eating purposes.
However, I’ve been exploring the area much more lately — for reasons entirely unrelated to food. Paterson is also home to a large retail outlet of Micro Center, a gigantic computer parts store, one of the few places in New Jersey you can still walk in and buy actual PC components. It used to be that we had CompUSA and many independent retail computer shops, but now they are mostly extinct, destroyed by companies such as Amazon and Tigerdirect who can undercut them on price and volume. Such is the way of the new economy.
So if I’m going to schlep down to Paterson (actually, it’s really only about 30 minutes from where I live, as long as traffic cooperates) I might as well get some stuff to eat. I brushed up on my basic Arabic and went exploring. After living in the Northern NJ area for nearly 20 years, I now wish I had done this years ago.
Al-Safa Storefront on Main Street in Paterson.
Looking for Kebabs and Schwarma? Eat like a Sheikh in Paterson.
In his podcast with me, Victor mentioned Fattal’s Bakery, a supermarket/grocery on Main Street that makes great Syrian-style Lahmajun (see related post on Assadourian Lahmajun) and pita bread. I knew I had to get some of that stuff if I was in the area, and I also wanted to get some lunch. Across the street from the Fattal’s Bakery parking lot is Al-Safa restaurant, a 25-year old Syrian kebab house.
The restaurant is also known in the local community as Bab Al-hara, which is also the name of a popular TV show in the middle east. Apparently there is something of a trademark dispute with this so the restaurant is now preferring to call itself Al-Safa.
Unbeknown to both myself and my dining companion, we had arrived at the restaurant on the first day of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. During that period, devout Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and any number of other indulgences from dawn until dusk, so we were the only customers there.
However, as the owner explained to me, he gets a lot of other customers besides Muslims, including many Syrian Jews, so he stays open and is happy to serve anyone. In the evenings starting at 7:30PM during the month of Ramadan, Al-Safa has a big buffet in its very pretty marble dining room and outdoor patio, so you might want to check that out. Be aware that while the restaurant is TECHNICALLY a BYOB, you should refrain from bringing alcohol into the restaurant during this holy period out of respect for the patrons there.
The specialty of the restaurant is Schwarma, which is also referred to in other Mediterranean languages as Doner Kebab or Gyro. Unlike Gyro, which uses oregano and other herbs, or Doner which is heavily cumin flavored with dried mint, Schwarma as it is presented in the Syrian or middle-eastern style is seasoned with Sabah Baharat, also called Ras El Hanout, or seven-spice blend. Al-Safa restaurant makes both a Chicken and a Beef Schwarma. All of the meat served in the restaurant is Halal, or butchered according to strict Islamic law.
Al-Safa cooks all of its kebabs in a traditional manner over a charcoal grill.
How can this NOT taste good?
Al-Safa menu. Click the photo to enlarge.
Al-Safa main dining room.
Outdoor Patio dining area.
Hummus appetizer, adorned with olive oil and spices. A truly excellent Hummus.
Muhammara, a spicy and tangy dip made with red Aleppo pepper and Walnuts with Pomegranate and Lemon Juice. It is also sometimes referred in the Turkish language as Acili Ezme.
Fried Kibbe, bulghur wheat torpedoes stuffed with seasoned meat flavored with pomegranate and pine nuts.
Tabbouleh, the ubiquitous middle eastern salad made with parsley and tomatoes and bulghur. Al-Safa uses a combination of both curly and flat Italian parsley, and lets it marinate overnight in lemon juice, giving it a very distinct and refreshing flavor.
Beef Schwarma, which is intensely spiced but not very salty, which I was rather impressed with.
The chicken Schwarma which is also very good.
Kofta Kebab, grilled over charcoal with grilled vegetables, onions and rice.
The next evening we decided to come back and try the buffet, which is $20.00 per person. Here are just a few of the dishes they had.
Pictured above are Babaghanoush and Hummus, stuffed eggplants, Lamb with rice, and stewed okra. The green colored dish is a type of braised chicken in some type of green vegetable sauce, similar to an Indian Saag.
Here’s a plate I composed for myself which includes Baked Kibbe, Lamb Meatballs, Yogurt Dumplings, Lamb with Rice, some kind of Bulghur and Goat pilaf, The green vegetable dish with chicken, and stewed okra. Everything was excellent and very authentic tasting.
Every table was given a plate of very sweet dates.
A dessert sampler which included three types of Baklava and Cheese-filled crepes sweetened with honey.
We finished off with a small but very strong demitasse cup of Arabic-style (Turkish) coffee flavored with cloves. We liked the fact that there was almost no sediment at the bottom, we drank the entire cup.