by Todd Abrams
There is cheap food and there is inexpensive food. Cheap food is produced on assembly lines, filled with strange, unpronounceable ingredients concocted in laboratories, and generally tastes like a cardboard-backed photograph of the food it is alleged to be. Inexpensive food merely costs less than average. The thrifty gourmand is always prospecting for the latter, and can find real deals dining at obscure ethnic joints in nondescript neighborhoods. Self-proclaimed as the "Home of authentic Bangladeshi cuisine," Aladdin Sweets & Café fits this description.
On the corner of Commor and Conant streets, in the extraordinarily diverse city of Hamtramck, there is not one dish on Aladdin's menu that surpasses $8.99. In fact, a large mixed fruit shake costs more than any of the appetizers and even a few of the vegetarian entrées that include rice or naan. On the whole, prices hardly surpass what you'll pay for a meal at a national drive-through chain. However, if you're interested in something more than just calories, the quality of the food here far exceeds any so-called value meal.
This is dining at its most basic, built around the utilitarian function of simply feeding people. Table service includes a pitcher of water with polystyrene cups, a few plastic forks, and a stack of paper napkins. All food comes on paper, plastic or Styrofoam. While not exactly what most would consider surly, the wait staff is hardly doting. And the atmosphere is a kind of cross between roadside stand and basement family gathering, with an obligatory faded poster peeling away from the wall. But, hey, let's face it: If style is a major factor when you're deciding where to eat out, you're probably not thinking of going to Hamtramck in the first place.
If one measure of good ethnic cuisine is the percentage of fellow diners that speak with an accent, Aladdin passes that test without difficulty. During an hour-long meal on a busy Saturday evening with a steady stream of dine-in, carry-out and catering customers, this little corner of Hamtramck could have been somewhere in the Ganges River Delta — if Hamtramck were somehow also straddling the Tropic of Cancer.
The food of Bangladesh is part of the larger category of Bengali cuisine which includes western India. There is just a staggering amount of regional differences that, unless you have spent much time in the country, can be difficult to interpret. The thing that speaks of authenticity is the wide array of flavors that make up a dish at Aladdin. Far from tasting muddled and tired, as food from so many ethnic restaurants can — particularly when the menu items are predominantly some kind of stew — these dishes are lively.
Take the savory snack roll of onion, chicken, black pepper and herbs. Alone a decent little bite, but when served with the creamy mint side of raita it's just plain delicious. There are various other tidbits on the snack menu, such as somosa, a few different stuffed breads including dal puri, a tasty little fried, puffy bread filled with lentils, and chicken wings roasted in a clay tandoor. Nothing on the snack menu costs more than $3.50. Choose from a few different soups and salads between $1.75 and $2.75.
Vegetarians have all sorts of choices, from curries to fried homemade cheese with spinach or green peas. There are some dishes where lentils are the base and others with chick peas. Try some mushroom vegetable fritters with onions and hot spices, or sautéed okra. The variety is amazing and the most expensive dish is $5.99.
There are three times as many meat and seafood dishes. The goat korma, braised in a yogurt base is creamy, subtle, deep and rich, with a touch of spice heat. The gravy was so delicious we wiped the last little bit out of the bowl with crispy and chewy naan. Though standard, chicken tikka was good and came over a fresh salad.
There are plenty of other chicken and goat dishes to choose from. Fish and shrimp go through all variations as well. Lamb shows up in the menu as kebab and chops. A half-dozen rice-based biriyani dishes, some flavored with saffron, round out the menu, before an assortment of naan and some miscellaneous sides, such as pickle and mango chutney.
Bangladesh is also well-known for its confections and desserts. As one might expect (given the name), Aladdin Sweets & Café has a refrigerated case full of them. We tried three different types. One, a small white rectangle, tasted something like a cheesecake but less dense or sweet and a bit drier. Another tan, football-shaped treat had no standout flavor and was pushed to the side. Our favorite was a ball soaked in caramelized sugar syrup. We didn't bother asking for names, since it seemed we could conceivably get along by shape and hue. There are plenty of choices for post-meal experimentation. Considering the cost of a meal, you should have plenty of cash left over for dessert.
Open 10:30 a.m.-midnight Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted; free delivery.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.