Like my hometown of Amman, Jordan, Santiago does not pride itself on being a hub of varied, accessible and affordable international cuisine. So I have made it my mission for the past two years to try any restaurant that falls within this category. Ali Baba, an Arabic restaurant in the Bellavista neighborhood, has been on my list of “to dos” for some time.
Photo by Gida Homad-Hamam
The owner of the restaurant is a charming woman from the town of Beit Jala, Palestine. She moved to Chile with her parents as a small child in 1950, after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Linda Abu-Gosch thought it grand to share her mother’s recipes by opening an Arabic restaurant in the neighborhood she grew up in. She has been serving home-style cooked meals for the past 12 years and is doing the best she can with the limited ingredients she has.
The restaurant does not lack in warm colors and little trinkets that include a water pipe, old Arabian instruments, lanterns, and above all, a ceiling shaped like a sultan’s turban.
The tables are covered with the famous embroidered Syrian Aghabani tablecloths. The Arabic music is soft but audible. All that is lacking to turn it into an Ottoman harem are incense and fountains.
The restaurant has had its share of TV moments, featuring in a TV show “Huaiquimán y Tolosa”, starring the popular Chilean actor Benjamin Vicuña.
It is named after the character in the fictional story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. The story revolves around a young man who stumbles upon treasures hidden by a gang of forty thieves deep within a cave. He overhears the leader of the band of thieves saying the words “iftah ya simsim” (open sesame) to get into the cave. Ali Baba repeats the formula and finds himself standing before the riches that the thieves have amassed inside the cave. The story ends happily for Ali Baba, who frees and marries the slave girl Murjana- his helper in deceiving the thieves (in some versions Murjana marries Ali Baba’s son). The forty thieves and Ali Baba’s greedy brother Kassim do not meet the same happy fate.
Whether the Ali Baba restaurant in Bellavista holds hidden treasures depends on your experience with Middle Eastern food.
When it comes to eating at restaurants in most “Middle Eastern” countries, one goes for the Mezza (starters) and the Mashawi (barbeque). It is not common for a restaurant to specialize in foods one usually eats at home. Ali Baba is, by “Middle Eastern” standards, “uncommon” and overpriced. For instance, Makloubeh (literally upside down) figures on the menu: a dish prepared in most homes in the Levant and made up of rice, fried cauliflower, fried eggplant and chicken or lamb. The hint of acidity in eggplants and the very meaty flavor of lamb make this dish a “Middle Eastern” favorite.
But everyone knows that there is nothing like a home cooked meal when you are far away from home. Indulge in the well-known humos (CP$ 2.990; or US$5.40), a savory chickpea and sesame paste appetizer; or, if you like the earthy taste of thyme, order labaneh balls with za’atar (CP$2.790; or US$5)- a strained form of yogurt topped with a thyme and sesame seed mixture. Both dishes are drizzled with olive oil, which adds a bitter-tangy touch, and eaten with pita bread using the hand, making for a closer relationship with your food. (In comparison, a plate of humos in Jordan, for example, will go for approximately US$1.50).
As a main course there is a variety of rice and ground meat stuffed vegetables ranging from eggplants to potatoes. You could go for a large plate of vegetarian stuffed vine leaves (CP$4.290; or US$7.70) or a plate of kabab with rice (CP$5.990; or US$10.80), filling your mouth with the delicious aftertaste of parsley and onions.
There is nothing like finishing off your meal with a glass of hot mint tea (CP$1.000; or US$1.80) and a piece of baklava - a mouth-watering sticky sweet made from filo pastry and nuts. Arak is also on the menu- a strong overpowering anis based liquor.
If you are in the Bellavista neighborhood and want a taste of what it’s like to eat in a “Middle Eastern” household, then you just might stumble upon a few treasures at Ali Baba’s. Although it is not the best home cooked meal I’ve had, it is sure to be a pleasant experience.
Santa Filomena 102, Bellavista
Metro: Baquedano, Patronato and Bellas Artes
Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday 12:30 pm to 11:30 pm; Sunday 1 pm to 4:30 pm; Closed Mondays