On the authenticity scale, menu misspellings and confusion when dining at a foreign-food spot are often positive signs. The rough edges charm, and I couldn't care less about the words on a page compared to what's on the plate. I take heart knowing the person in the kitchen actually came from the place their food represents. Almost assuredly there's a more interesting story attached.
Such is the case at Arabian Nights, operated by Kareem Alshami and his wife Simood Gorguis, with the help of their two sons Yosif and Ameer. The family fled Baghdad, Iraq, in 2005, spending seven years in Syria, then two in Turkey, before finally gaining sponsorship in Colorado Springs. Kareem operated eateries prior, now acting mostly in a managerial capacity, while Simood practiced civil law before devoting herself to cooking and pastry pursuits. She got her feet wet locally working for Heart of Jerusalem before launching Arabian Nights, and says it has always been a dream to open her own dessert shop. "This is fun to me, not only a job," she says, "I put love inside the food."
Even better, she exhibits a true chef's mindset creatively, borrowing touches from each country in which she's lived and traveled, and incorporating them into her own versions of traditional dishes. Minor tweaks with big results. "When I see something new," she says, "I want to try it and make it better." She makes everything fresh on-site, including her own thin, wheat pita, which are better than their thick, dry counterparts elsewhere — more naan-like — bearing flavorful char marks from a tandoori oven bake. And her desserts are damn near worth their own separate storefront.
We construct our own sample platter (individual sweets between $1.25 and $4.99): A sesame bar lands somewhere in between halva and Greek pasteli, simple and mildly bitter. You'll find both a regular and a more-gourmet and fantastic pistachio baklava. There's churro-like, dense fried dough with tacky syrup, a macaroon-like coconut flake pastry. Then a superb, rosewater-laced cheesecake rendition made famous by the central Syrian city of Hama, called "halawa eljoubna" on this menu. Simood also constructs a special puff pastry filled with sweet whipped cream and pistachios, which she calls Arabian Nights. It somehow channels a melting American ice cream sandwich.
Going smörgåsbord style with a $60 "special dish" option, which easily feeds four, also offers a great way to sample widely through savory plates, many of which feed two for just over $15 à la carte, perhaps paired with a salad or starter ranging from $3 to $10. The platter arrives with a mound of grilled meats and asparagus, tomato and onions atop mixed rice and pita (we'd recommend they serve those on the side in the future for easier access, despite the impressive presentation). The meats — skewers of grilled chicken, lamb and bound ground beef, plus lamb ribs — are uniformly tender and salty. Kareem acts secretive when I inquire about the marinade and spicing, only sharing something about a sauce from Iraq, imported through California.
Eggroll-like wraps called burak host a mixture of fillings, from seasoned ground beef to mild cheese or a spanakopita-like spinach blend with dill hints. A side salad drips with a vinaigrette and lightens the affair. And sour cream dip in a side saucer gifts a pleasant tang.
Among other items we tried during our visits, two eggplant plates deserve equal attention, one listed as a salad, which tastes smoky, like a strong babaganoush, but it's not puréed, instead chopped wet like chunky salsa, flecked with other veggies. The other is called "macduoce," featuring an olive-oil-doused trio of rounded segments stuffed with walnuts, jalapeños, bell peppers and seasonings, served over parsley leaves with pickled accoutrements. Arabian Nights' falafel comes star-shaped, crispy and fluffy, flecked with whole sesame seeds. It's probably the best around.
Lastly, we try Simood's Chicken Tagine, a leg and thigh with a huge helping of chickpeas and large green olives in a loose, yellow curry-esque sauce, not as potent as other North African renditions. Mixed rice absorbs the juices and an unmixed fattoush (bread salad, i.e., pita alongside refreshing tomatoes, cucumbers, greens and pickled pepper slices) again rounds out the meal with fresh crunch.
Drinks shouldn't be overlooked with whatever you eat. A strong hot cardamom tea, pleasantly not sweet and served on an ornate Turkish tea set, pairs well with desserts. A rich ayran-like salted yogurt and mint drink called "shanina" cools the palate. Fresh pineapple juice delights, though a chai tea does awkwardly cloy like Kahlua. Mandatory: Get the ginger-lemon-clove iced tea, perfectly in balance among the three. It's just one more unique touch on the menu that really sets Arabian Nights apart from our other Middle Eastern eateries.