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Little Egypt offers big flavor at modest price

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I am guessing that Ridgewood’s Little Egypt restaurant wasn’t named after the famed turn-of-the-century belly dancers. Still, its dishes certainly made my belly dance.

It is my absolute favorite type of dining establishment: an unpretentious, off-the-beaten-track hole-in-the wall with terrific food. Little Egypt ticks all those boxes — and did I mention it’s also cheap?

After 30-odd years catering for weddings, parties and church events, Nashaat Youssef and his sister, Nagwa Hanna, decided it was bricks and mortar time. In 2014 they opened Little Egypt, a combo takeout joint, Middle Eastern specialty grocer, and dine-in restaurant.

The front of the establishment, which can seat about 20, is embellished with multiple displays of Ancient Egyptian-themed tchotchkes. Glass fronted fridges offer a collection of domestic and Middle Eastern soft drinks — but no beer. Harsh lighting and white tiled walls complete the sense that you’re eating in a store, but if affordable and delicious food is what you crave, don’t let that put you off.

It didn’t seem like you could go wrong with anything here, but there are some standouts. Unlike the more familiar Greek and Turkish versions, Little Egypt’s grape leaves are served warm, and filled with ground meat in the middle of the rice. They may call it an appetizer, but a green vegetable, a starch, and some meat qualifies it as a complete meal on my food pyramid.

The thin, slightly crisp rounds of eggplant are luscious, either as a snack or a side. Foul (pronounced “fool”), a thick, satisfying mash of fava beans with garlic, butter and spices, could be considered the national dish of Egypt. In Alexandria, where the restaurant’s owners hail from, it’s eaten at every meal, especially breakfast. It has a lot in common with Mexican refried beans.

Koshary is a vegan’s dream dish. It’s a mashup of mixed rice, lentils, macaroni, noodles, and chickpeas, covered with homemade garlic tomato sauce, topped with fried onions and served with garlic vinaigrette dressing. If you’re also ordering a meat or seafood dish, it makes a great accompaniment for any protein. The portion size is ample for four diners as a side.

Macaroni Bechamel is the Egyptian take on a 1950s-style casserole. Creamy mac-n-cheese with meat and Hamburger Helper-ish spice produce some respectable comfort food.

The grilled branzino is crusted with spices and charred on the grill, sealing in the juices and perfuming the moist flesh.

We capped our evening with some high-octane Egyptian coffee, a slightly less sweet and thick cousin of the Turkish/Greek version. We paired that with konafa, a crunchy Middle Eastern confection made from shredded filo dough. Excessively dry, it was the only disappointment of the evening. It would have made a divine base for a scoop of ice cream.

The Bottom Line

Our meal at Little Egypt was infinitely enhanced by Nashaat, our doting host, who clearly wants every guest to enjoy dining at his establishment. If you love experimenting with delicious ethnic dishes at almost embarrassingly modest prices, you’re going to love this place.

Updated 9:16 am, May 16, 2017
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