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October 26, 2007

The Gadabout—October 26, 2007

The infamous Wicker Park is known as a land of funky hipster coffee shops and sexy sushi bars, so it’s refreshing to see a nice cheap ethnic spot add a dollop of contrast to the neighborhood. Sultan’s Market, however, cannot be classified as your token “cheap ethnic” place; rather than serving the same role as the tired old Chinese takeout down the street or that one stand that sells burritos with bite, Sultan’s Market brings customers genuine falafel and more at a legitimate level of both authenticity and deliciousness.

Although its exterior sign is a large, golden, onion-like sultan’s hat, the cozy Middle Eastern deli completely avoids any other frippery, leaving the food to take obvious precedence. The Mediterranean salad bar holds court in the middle of the room with vegetable items ranging from pita stuffers like onions and tomatoes to more traditional foods like dolma, stuffed grape leaves.

More interesting delights peer out from behind the counter at the back where you place your order, such as the freshly fried falafel on which Sultan’s Market prides itself (its website is chicagofalafel.com), along with all possible fixings. A vat of creamy hummus drizzled with olive oil, small boxes of baklava, and huge rounds of soft bread covered in zatter, a choppy blend of sesame seed, thyme, sumac and oregano add to the temptations as well. There are a few dark leather booths by the window, but the food is always served to go.

Hummus is served at Sultan’s Market not in servings, but by the pound, making it our kind of place. We braced ourselves for a Costco-sized amount of hummus, but reluctantly opted to be moderate at the last minute. After all, hummus poses the same problem as mustard: What do you do with a giant jar of it?

The men behind the counter claimed that half a pound of hummus ($3) serves two, but we found the amount more than sufficient as an accompanying dish for three people. Its tangy flavor and smooth texture was the perfect complement for our various entrées, and the pita served with it was as wonderfully warm and fluffy as the Snuggles fabric softener bear.

Choices on the menu span the traditional breadth of Near Eastern cuisine—kabobs and shawarmas come in sandwich and entrée form, and there are rices, soups, tabbouleh, Jerusalem salad, and savory pies that provide cheerful bursts of color and flavor to the browns and beiges of the main courses.

Ordering kefta kabob ($6) at a Middle Eastern restaurant is like ordering Pad Thai at a Thai restaurant, and the results often can taste just like the order: uninspired and boring. Yet Sultan’s Market provides a flavorful version of this ubiquitous staple that reflects the care the eatery puts into everything it offers.

The few pieces of meatball-sized ground lamb were slightly dry, but the flavor from the obviously fresh herbs and the accompanying bed of curried basmati rice easily glossed over any deficiencies. The kefta kabob is served as a sandwich for $1 less, but you don’t get rice inside your pita. The highlight for us, not surprisingly, was the falafel ($3). It’s hard to overlook the pseudo-spherical golden-brown gems that almost whisper “Eat me!” in Arabic. The falafel is what the tater tot wishes it could be, with its ideally crispy exterior and softer chickpea-based interior, and it’s an unnecessary challenge to restrict yourself to just one.

We heartily recommend that everyone get his own falafel side order. The zatter fattia—a version of the spiced bread cut in half and topped with feta cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and onion—was the second best vehicle (next to the falafel) for delivery of the hummus to your mouth. The bread had a toasted sheen of oven-fresh crispness, and the spices and cheese perked up the hummus nicely.

Yes, you could go to Cedars or the Nile instead. Better yet, you could go to the basement of the Reg and get a refrigerated meal-to-go from either restaurant at Ex Libris. Along these lines of thinking, Sultan’s Market alone is probably not worth the hour-plus trek via CTA from one “Park” to another even though it certainly gives both restaurants a run for their quality at half their price.

Given that you, as a U of C student, have a high probability of ending up in Wicker Park for other reasons anyway, you’re much better off here than you are at the local Chipotle or Potbelly. With its affordable prices and high-quality Middle Eastern dishes, we’re happy to join the harem circling Sultan’s Market.

Sultan’s Market

2057 W. North Ave.

Near Blue Line (Damen Stop)

(773) 253-3057

—Sheila Rajagopal and Clay Smith