Middle Eastern cuisine found in Chicago suburb

January 18, 2012 10:02:34 AM PST
When a family cooks together for more than a few years, chances are pretty good they will have mastered their recipes. In the case of one family, they have been making falafel, hummus and other Middle Eastern favorites for more than 18 years, at restaurants both in the city, as well as in the suburbs.

From all appearances, this kitchen could be straight out of Albany Park. There's the shawarma, the falafel, and of course, the thick and creamy hummus and baba gannoush, or eggplant spread. But this is suburban Morton Grove, along Waukegan Road, where the family behind Olive Branch Express has extensive experience in Middle Eastern and Lebanese cooking.

"We make it all in-house," said Mariam Cooney, one of the owners of the Olive Branch Express. "It's fresh, made-to-order so when you go ahead and order falafel, we actually make it right then and there, so you're not getting stale falafel and it does make a big difference."

Lunch specials dot the dining room, but there are other gems. Consider slightly thick and hearty lentil soup or a falafel sandwich that resembles what you might find in Lebanese-heavy Dearborn, Michigan. The fried chickpea balls are smashed onto a large pita, then are joined by turnips that have been pickled in beet juice, plus lettuce, onions and tomatoes and a generous drizzle of sesame-laced tahini sauce.

Kebabs include chicken, beef and the kefta - which combines ground lamb and beef - plus the homemade shawarma, another lamb-beef combo, which is sliced to order.

"We go ahead and marinate lamb and beef cutlets - they're marinated for at least 24 hours - then we basically stack them up on a skewer and slowly rotisserie them and slice them up," said Cooney.

Appetizer samplers are the way to go for the undecided, but the rice-stuffed grape leaves and spinach pies are also good bets. Cooney says there's really no need for her neighbors to drive down to the city to get their falafel fix.

"A lot of people have to go to Albany Park in order to get authentic Lebanese unless they come to Morton Grove and experience this," Cooney said.

Olive Branch Express
9480 Waukegan Rd., Morton Grove