Photo by Beth Ferguson
There is nothing quite as exhilarating as when you're in a Third World backwater looking for a place to eat. The adventure begins as you inspect a crumbling eatery and decide to roll the dice and sit down. If you're lucky, the menu will have pictures. If you're not, well, that's how I ended up eating monkey once in central Africa.
The good news is, you don't have to leave Richmond to experience adventure like this. At the western edge of Virginia Commonwealth University, you will find Al-Kawthar, a Middle Eastern eatery. It's a little dark from too many burned-out fluorescent lights, and after seeing the stacked cans of unfamiliar foods, you might reconsider. Don't. Go in. Sit down.
But be prepared. Choosing the buffet and ordering off the menu can both be a little problematic, as questions tend to be answered with only a nod and a sincere smile. I did manage to order amazingly thick and good mango drinks for the kids, but my yogurt drink, ordered three times, never materialized. Random food would be brought to the table, while things that I'm pretty sure we ordered were never seen.
A soup came out first. It was vegetable, I think, a grayish-green color with a taste that was not quite curry, but milder — a nice palate cleanser, even on a hot day. Next, small plates arrived containing hummus that we quickly devoured.
The falafel appetizer was not much to look at — dark brown outside, and an odd green inside. But it was delicious — crispy yet moist and tender with just the right amount of garlic. On the other hand, the grilled lamb livers, brought by mistake, were dry and had a thick iron taste. The staff took them away with apologies and lots of smiles.
The main dishes are lamb or chicken, all richly spiced with cumin, ground coriander and cardamon. We're pretty sure we had the Chicken Mindy (pictured), slow-roasted with a crispy skin and fragrant spices, and a braised lamb dish that was fork tender and moist. Your best bet is to hit the buffet. Just grab whatever looks and smells good — nearly everything — and enjoy.
1517 W. Broad St., 225-1331
Prices: Appetizers, $3 to $6; entrées, $8 to $12; lunch buffet, $8; dinner buffet, $11.
Hours: 9 a.m. to midnight.