Takeaway treasures create unique dishes in North Van District

Food review: The Alibaba Capilano Café and Big Bite Donair

Situated at opposite ends of town, separated by 11 kilometres of highway and a few thousand other restaurants, are two little neighbourhood takeaway treasures focussing on delicious donairs and location-specific specialities.

The first, The Alibaba Capilano Café, is tucked discreetly off Capilano Road at Fullerton Avenue in a diminutive business complex that also houses a dance academy and Panago Pizza. The café is owned and operated by a husband and wife team the warm hospitality and helpfulness of which, on the occasion of my visit, had me crossing my fingers that the food would be as good as the service. It was.

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Specifically, a house specialty of coal-grilled, marinated lamb hearts and livers invigorated my palate and earned my respect for transforming lesser sought cuts of meat into a tasty and unique meal. I visited Alibaba for takeaway, expecting just to grab a quick and cheerful donair for me and my little entourage, but upon entering the restaurant I was hit with a great scent of grilled meat and I spotted long metal skewers smoking over coals. I asked the owner/grill chef what he was cooking and he told me hearts and livers.

Alibaba
Grilled lamb hearts and livers are popular at the Alibaba Capilano Café. - Paul McGrath, North Shore News

Now look, I know that to many, that would be an off-putting reply given the West’s love affair with choice cuts, but I have learned over decades of trying food all over the place that if a culture’s cuisine has come to incorporate the so-called “nasty bits” as a matter of course, they have probably figured out a way to make them delicious. And so it was that I ordered three skewers of grilled goodies (two liver kebabs and one heart) without reservation. Grinning, the owner said he felt my order was slightly off balance and threw in an additional skewer of hearts, on the house. In addition to the skewers, I picked up a beef donair, a falafel donair, and a couple triangles of honey-soaked baklava, in order to more thoroughly explore the menu; Alibaba also serves scrumptious looking kebabs of more traditional meats, prepared Persian style on long flat skewers, like Vaziri.

The beef donair was exceptionally generously portioned, bursting with long strips of tightly packed beef, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and house made sauces in springy, chewy pita. The falafel donair, served with the same fillings, was an excellent rendition of the classic street food, with light and airy, golden rounds of falafel that side-stepped a very common trapping of hastily made chickpea patties: bitterness. Alibaba’s falafel was round and toasty on the palate, rather than sharp and bitter, and was stacked just as full as the beef. I was alone in my sampling of the grilled hearts and livers and wished someone else would have been around to try them. Both cuts of lamb were shockingly tender and filled with deep meaty flavours, but it was the livers that excited me most. They were obviously very fresh and expertly trimmed, revealing a melt-in-your-mouth texture and subtle seasonings. I washed them down with a simple German pilsner (at home, to be clear, as the café is not licensed) and found the pairing excellent. The baklava was a compelling end to the meal, deeply honeyed and gently lifted with rose water and toasted pistachios. Patrons can call ahead to have their order waiting for them, or dine in at one of a handful of tables. Two donairs, three skewers, and two baclavas came to $30. 1825 Capilano Road. 604-987-9000.

At the other end of the district, in a slightly larger business complex on Lynn Valley Road, sits Big Bite Donair, a similarly small business run by an equally warm and welcoming owner. Big Bite serves chicken and beef donairs and donair platters, as well as falafel, various kebabs, butter chicken, and their own house specialty called boulanie, which is a traditional Afghan pan-fried bread stuffed with potato and spices.

On a recent rainy evening I popped by Big Bite with my wife and kids, also to grab some grub for takeaway. We opted for chicken donair, beef donair, falafel donair and a chicken donair platter (served with rice, salad, and sauces) as well as an order of the aforementioned boulanie. While we waited, we engaged in a conversation with the owner about his business and his cooking background, which ultimately resulted in him offering my kids a sample of the house made jalebi, the golden brown, crispy swirls of deep fried, syrup-soaked dough that are a specialty of Northern Indian cuisine. The kids liked it so much that we ended up adding two portions of the dessert to our order.

Big Bite is a friendly, no-frills restaurant that puts its efforts into service and good food, and has the distinction of being the first business on the North Shore to make use of the Skip the Dishes food delivery platform, which serves as a bridge between local eateries and food couriers.

Big Bite
The boulanie was a decadent treat, dense and golden with exotic spices and crispy exterior, sort of like a flattened mashed potato panini. . - Paul McGrath, North Shore News

The restaurant also finishes its donairs with a lengthy stint in a panini press, flattening them and crisping the pita, making for a thoroughly enjoyable, unique, and decidedly less messy than usual take on the dish. Big Bite makes its own deliciously tangy, potent, and nicely seasoned hot sauce that is, in my estimation, a must try on your order and certainly enlivened each of the dishes. The chicken donair plate was substantially stacked with morsels of slow-cooked, caramelized chicken set atop a bed of high grade, supple basmati rice, with a side of tabbouleh and garlic sauce. The donairs all benefitted from the same tabbouleh (a nice addition to the usual mix of toppings), along with tomato, onion, lettuce, cucumber and garlic and hot sauces, and their falafel had a distinct soft, dense texture that is unusual for that item.

The boulanie was a decadent treat, dense and golden with exotic spices and crispy exterior, sort of like a flattened mashed potato panini. We ate half of it in the car on the way home and the rest around the kitchen table; I’d recommend eating it right away, while hot and crispy, as the dish seems to lose its crunch as it cools. Our meal of three donairs (wraps), a donair platter, boulanie, and jalebi was $45. 1252 Lynn Valley Road, North Vancouver. 604-770-2070.

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