Beginning last Monday with the new moon, close to a quarter of the world’s population is abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours. Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims are obligated to fast from Suhur (a pre-dawn meal that comes before morning prayers) until Iftar (when the fast is broken directly after sunset). Exceptions are granted to those of the faith who are breast-feeding or dealing with illnesses or other situations that could put undue hardship on them. This ritual fast makes up one of the so-called Five Pillars of Islam, along with Zakat (almsgiving), Shahada (professing one’s faith), Salah (prayer) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Ramadan will conclude with the next crescent moon, likely May 12, when Muslims will celebrate Eid al Fitr.
Having grown up around Muslims in New York and in Jakarta before moving to Albuquerque, and later working with people of the faith at several jobs, I have completed more than a few days of fasting for Ramadan—though as an act of solidarity rather than a religious observance. In all honesty I found the practice to be quite challenging. But—writing here as a food critic—I can testify that after a day of fasting, those first sips of water and bites of halal food can be a downright mind-blowing experience.
For the beginning of Ramadan, I offer some local favorites that provide the Islamic community, as well as the city at large, with delicious eats year-round. These three Palestinian-American spots are also staunch enough to prepare feasts for others despite their own daytime abstention. It did feel somewhat inconsiderate to be cruising around town, not fasting and picking up delicious dishes from some of my favorite Muslim-owned eateries. But as the brothers at Alquds told me, “We’ve been doing this.”
First on the list was an old favorite. Alquds (literally “The Holy One,” and the Arabic name for Jerusalem), is located in a strip mall on the NW corner of Montgomery and San Pedro. Old-school local foodies will remember when Alquds was essentially just a couple of tables in San Pedro Mart, across the street to the south, and seemed to sell cigarettes in near-equal quantities to their killer falafel. They’ve now completely foregone the tobacco products to focus on their cuisine, but they still offer imported goods from the Middle East and beyond in the grocery side of the establishment. Right now they’re offering several different sorts of palm dates for sale up front, as many break their Ramadan fasts with these wonderfully sweet dates, always consumed in an odd number.
Regardless of how long it has been since my last visit, the two brothers who often tend the front of Alquds remember me and welcome me warmly. I ordered my favorites: a side of fallafel (six pieces for $4.99) and a lamb shawarma plate ($12.99). While the question of who has the best falafel in town is highly contested, I’d definitely give these the gold. The falafel’s exterior is wonderfully crunchy, and because these are torpedo shaped (instead of the more standard balls) they deliver more fried deliciousness. And inside, the still-moist garbanzo bean melds with a serious punch of fresh and dried spices. But it is the lamb plate that has had me, and many others, hooked on this spot for years. The fresh, masterfully spiced slivers of lamb with their silken, full-flavored hummus, make a meal fit for a sheikh. The plate comes with the option of rice or hummus; but I often go all in, ordering it with rice and then getting a side of hummus and one of shattah (a pickled hot sauce) for good measure.
Next on the list was another Burque levantine classic, Yasmine’s Cafe, right on Central and Ash SE. The better part of two decades ago, in my high school punk days, I’d come here on the regular for the individual pitas, falafel and sides of pickles they sold for just 25 cents each. The place has changed hands—and prices—since then, but it still offers very reasonably priced and incredibly tasty Middle-Eastern fare. Like Alquds, this is a family-run place, and the workers are friendly and helpful. Yasmin’s is really known for its chicken, so I went with the Santa Fe chicken shawarma ($6.50) that I’d long been meaning to try and an order of the stuffed falafel (six for $5.95). The falafel came out freshly fried and crunchy, with caramelized onions and plenty of sumac inside. The sandwich was loaded with chicken and a spicy red sauce that is not quite shattah nor a typical N.M. red chile, but some beautiful thing unto itself. I’ll be back.
Last on the line-up was a newer Falastini joint that has been producing much buzz and winning loyal customers over the last two years. At Need-a-Pita (5017 Menaul St. NE) Alex Abweh handles the front, and his wife Neda is the master baker. This spot has many items on offer; but from the smell alone, it’s clear that the real focus here is the baked goods. I mean, the signage out front beckons: “Need-A-Pita. Take-A-Pita. Eat-A-Pita.” Every single baked good, sweet or savory, in the glass display case had me tempted, and I finally settled on a spinach pie ($2.95), the zaatar bread ($2.99) and a chicken-sumac roll ($3.25). The spinach had a good bite and benefited from a strong onion punch. Most importantly, it was not at all soggy. The zaatar bread was absolutely loaded with the complex spice blend, and the addition of copious sesame seeds to the mix was welcome. But the chicken-sumac roll? This may be my new favorite lunch item in town. The tart sumac and the slow-roasted chicken are perfect for each other, combined in near-equal proportions, and the fresh-baked roll houses them as if they were in a perpetual honeymoon. And, real talk, all of them were worth fasting for.