Cheap Hookah

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Upon hearing I had been assigned the duty of reviewing Al Amir, a Lebanese restaurant way up on Belt Line, I decided to study the restaurant's Web site. This, after all, was no casual trek to the corner diner. Nope, it was to be a foray into a foreign land, a journey to a place few people from East Dallas ever set foot upon—you know, Addison.

Oh yeah, Al Amir is pretty exotic too. At least the Web site made it seem so, with its lavish pictures of hookah pipes, belly dancers and a sunken dance floor. The more I read about the "mouth-watering" cuisine and the bangin' scene, the more excited I got. This really was going to be like traveling abroad, to a destination packed with exotic spices and tobacco tinged with foreign accents.

I called a few buddies, and we began our travels up that ancient trading route, the Dallas North Tollway. The length of our journey only served to whet our appetites and stoke our internal, hedonistic fires, for we knew a sensual reward waited.


Al Amir

Lentil soup $5

Cold mazza combo $20

Hot combo $24

Super Mixed Grill $24

Sharhat $18

Baklava ice cream cake $7

When we finally arrived at the corner of Belt Line and Business Avenue, scuffed across a strangely empty parking lot and walked through the doors...well, is there a Lebanese equivalent of crickets chirping?

There was not a single customer, and we seemed to have taken the staff completely by surprise. As the doors creaked shut behind us, the servers jerked to attention, as if we had awakened them from a deep sleep. "Hi!" everyone said too loudly, as we were led to our table.

We certainly had our choice. The interior of Al Amir is cavernous, the size of a New York City nightclub, but it felt even bigger, since, at 8:30 on a Wednesday night, we were the only ones there.

Once both we and the staff had recovered from our mutual shock, we settled down and prepared to grit through what looked to be a weird dinner. Two things helped lift the heavy veil of awkwardness: A couple of large families entered to push the room to about 5 percent of capacity, and over at our table, we ordered the cold mazza plate.

The mazza—or appetizers—on the menu didn't differ much from your usual Middle Eastern fare, but the execution proved excellent. The plate offered up staples like baba ghanouj and hummus, interspersed with little delicacies like a smartly salty feta cheese, tart pickled veggies and—the only loser on the plate—a flaccid dolma. Too often, hummus is a disappointment, but here both it and the baba ghanouj tasted fresh, infused with garlic but not dependent on it, and with their own unique blends of spices. After smushing our hot pita bread around the huge plate of mazza, blending dips and cheese, pickles and olives, we toasted with a middling Lebanese wine and relaxed, all but forgetting the strange atmosphere.

Which was a feat, really. To put it bluntly, the Addison Al Amir feels like a Lebanese Applebee's. The décor is little more than sand-colored faux finish, a few Persian rugs and travertine tile. Like most places in Addison, the place had the aura of a long legacy of generic eateries. It's not that whoever decorated the place didn't care, it's just there's only so much you can do with that much Sheetrock.

But what does it matter, as long as the food's good? We were hoping that our main course would make our surroundings irrelevant. It's true, the mazza plate had hinted at redemption, but a return to the menu proved as disappointing as the empty dance floor. We tried the "Super Mixed Grill," a sampling of dry, flavorless kebabs. Lamb, beef, chicken—which was which? The raggedy execution belied any differences between the meats. Their shared mediocrity was their only noteworthy characteristic.

One item stood out, however. The sharhat—Lebanese steak—was sort of a Middle Eastern version of carne asada: not the best cut of meat, but tenderized with a sharp, garlicky marinade. The flavor soaked into the thin fillet and gave it a tangy balance. Still, the sharhat wasn't enough to salvage the meal, and the piped-in international dance music wasn't enough—despite the kindly smiles of our server—to hold off the evening's wilting energy.

It's a good thing we went back on a Friday night. While on Wednesday the parking lot was wind-swept and desolate, this night required three or four orbits to find an open spot. A familiar thump-thump-thump echoed from the building, and when we entered there were...people! So many people! Tables were filled with sharply dressed revelers sucking on hookahs like they were siphoning $4 gas. Drinks were flowing, and the energy spilled out on the patio. Young girls table hopped, older couples sat in the corner and gossiped.

No one, however, was eating, and we stood out as we ordered a hot mazza plate, hoping to replicate our pleasant appetizer of a few nights earlier. We sucked down watery drinks while waiting...and waiting...until 35 minutes later, our plate arrived. It was hot, but disappointing, kind of like the Iraq War or Tony Romo. And, again, like the war or Romo, the initial promise of the individual appetizers was ruined through its execution. The plate was a mix of meat pies, cheese rolls and spinach pies, all of which would have been delicious, but they had all been thrown indiscriminately into the fryer. With the exception of the cheese rolls, whose sharp, tangy feta provided the only distinguishable flavor, you couldn't tell your kibbe from your falafel. It might as well have been, well, an Applebee's appetizer plate.

The thing is, none of that really mattered, not with the bumpin' scene that was sprouting around us. The DJ spun a mix of international dance music that provided much more spice than the falafel—mid-East hits filtered through M.I.A., followed by Bombay pop. The play list exceeded the tired old house rehash you'd hear in an overpriced club, and the dance floor thickened with denizens, their arms raised, showing off moves both goofy and sultry. Occasionally, the floor would lose a dancer or two to the siren's call of the hookah.

A word about those: Amazingly enough, even though they produce a puff the size of a dragon's breath with each toke, the hookah's smoke factor was nil. We were surrounded by these contraptions, and yet you couldn't smell a thing—it was as if the smoke disappeared by magic. It was impressive, though not as impressive as the list of tobacco flavors available: chocolate, jasmine and apple, to name a few. The hookah indulgence added a unique twist to an already festive atmosphere.

Looking around, we realized that Al Amir isn't so much about the food. With the lights turned low and the sultry cadence pouring through the speakers, the place was pretty damn exotic, a place everyone should visit at least once (on a weekend, of course). We suggest you grab some friends, order a cold mazza plate and fire up the hookah. It's a lot more fun if you inhale.

885 Belt Line Road, Addison, 972-488-2647. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday and 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. $$

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