Let’s Dish, Kansas City
Dig in: Our series showcases some of our favorite restaurant meals.
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Last Thanksgiving, our first as a married couple, we didn’t dare try cooking a turkey at home. So we decided to go camping. Then our most pressing question became: What to eat?
We needed food that kept well and didn’t need to be reheated. So the day before we hit the road, we raided Baba’s Pantry, a cozy and colorful Palestinian-American deli, and loaded up on our favorite spreads, toasted pita chips and assorted pickled vegetables.
We’ve been regulars there since fall 2021, shortly after the mom-and-pop deli opened at 1019 E. 63rd St., just west of Troost Avenue. The restaurant’s namesake, Yahia “Baba” Kamal, and his family transformed the space that had been vacant for two decades into a vibrant deli that, on a busy day, serves 300.
Known to everyone as “Baba,” which is Arabic for dad, Baba grew up in Tulkarem, a farming community in the West Bank. After moving here in 2000, he became known as Kansas City’s “hummus king.”
Baba says he goes “hunting” for the freshest ingredients — which is evident in the feast that ends up on your plate.
Luke loves the chicken shawarma ($10.99) with fries ($4.20). Baba’s team marinates the chicken in a blend of curry powder, garlic, cumin, coriander and other spices. After a day or two, it is grilled, sliced and put in a skillet with a little olive oil. The chicken makes its way into pita bread or a wrap along with hummus and your choice of toppings — Luke gets the crunchy pickled turnips and cucumbers.
If you want spice, you can add the shatta sauce or torshi. The sandwich is then topped off with a drizzle of tahini or yogurt.
Baba and Anna share a favorite item on the menu: the hummus. It’s a little tangy and oh so silky smooth. Mass-produced grocery store hummus pales in comparison.
Baba let us know why. Each morning he’s in the kitchen at dawn, cooking about 60 pounds of dried garbanzo beans that he soaked the night before, then adding tahini, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt. Then he tops the spread with thick pools of the best olive oil he can find.
What makes his hummus so creamy?
“Tender love, really, because you need to babysit them, and be patient,” Baba said.
For $5.99 you can snag an 8 ounce to-go container of his bestselling item. And it’s the perfect starter for a picnic, a potluck or a game spread. Or Thanksgiving.
On a recent Wednesday, Anna brightened up her hummus with shatta ($6.99) — a bright-red chile paste that adds a kick when wiped through the hummus with a triangle of warm pita bread. She also indulged in the olive mazza ($6.99) and Baba’s torshi ($7.99), a mix of pickled veggies.
With its recent success — namely, a spot on Bon Appetit’s top 10 new restaurants list — Baba’s gets crowded, especially on Saturdays. While dining in is absolutely worth the wait for the made-to-order falafel or the freshly cut shawarma, the grab and go pantry items are an excellent — and faster — option too.
To drop by Baba’s is to glimpse the life of a man who came to Kansas City, which he affably calls his “hometown,” after moving from the West Bank to Oklahoma in 1979 for college.
When we sat down for a late lunch, ahead of the dinner rush hour, which starts around 5, we practically had the place to ourselves. Baba and his son, Kamal Kamal, later joined us at the table.
At 62, Baba has a white mustache and a contagious smile. He’s built a restaurant as welcoming as his personality. The walls are adorned with the Palestinian flag and photos of Middle Eastern celebrities and family, including his mother and father. Turkish coffee in hand, he pointed out other treasures, including a Palestinian textile his mother gave him decades ago. The threads inspired the restaurant’s vibrant paint colors.
For Kamal, the space his family built, and the success they’ve seen as a Palestinian restaurant in the Midwest, is “revolutionary.” It’s not just about the food, but affirming an identity and creating a place where all are welcome.
And welcomed they are. Baba is most at home in the kitchen, but he comes out often to greet guests or humbly receive gifts, including saffron, homegrown produce and the colorful Guatemalan baseball cap he wore that day.
While leaving, we glanced down at the receipt. Printed at the bottom were the words echoed from Baba’s mouth: “Thank you my friend!”
But I think we’re the ones who should be doing the thanking.
This story was originally published January 26, 2023 6:30 AM.
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