In his prime, my grandfather was a man of many talents. An ophthalmologist by day, he spent his evenings lovingly tending his Shiraz garden. My grandfather's knack for making roses, petunias and zinnias grow vibrant and velvety paled in comparison, though, to his flair for roasting eggplants.
My grandfather liked his eggplants purple and shapely, with smooth, waxy complexions. Using a fork, he would puncture holes in the plump vegetable before wrapping it in aluminum foil and placing it inside a wood fireplace. The finished aubergine's charred skin was peeled away to reveal soft, tender flesh. With its custard-like texture and smoky flavor, the eggplant was delicious.
Years later, I'm reminded of my grandfather's gift for roasting eggplants while dining at Mama's Bakery and Deli in University Heights (4237 Alabama St.). It's the fried-eggplant wrap that does it. The same rich, toasted flavor meets an oily-silky consistency—like foie gras or grilled bone marrow. At Mama's, the veggie curls up to familiar fixings—tomato, lettuce, parsley and pickles. A chewy sajj flatbread—"homemade and fresh"—ties everything together the way that only near-perfect carbs can.
But it's the wrap's baba ghanouj spread that nabs the spotlight. Smoky, garlicky goodness defines the eggplant-and-tahini mixture. Despite its vegetarian status, the wrap is just as filling—and much more satisfying—than Mama's kafta and beef shawarma offerings. When my grub buddies and I arrived at the Lebanese eatery, we decided to order several different dishes. Our loot included a spinach-and-cheese pie, two salads and three wraps.
Unfortunately, the beef shawarma and kafta wraps suffered from the same weakness: dry, lackluster meat. It's always disappointing when the star ingredient fails to perform. In this case, the too-chewy meat pieces weren't frightful, just forgettable. Yes, the sajj was fantastic and flaunted just enough stretch, but the yawn-inducing protein couldn't hide behind it.
Interestingly, the domed griddle that births the flatbread also goes by the name "sajj." Hot off the grill, the savory pie we ordered featured sautéed spinach and gooey cheese wrapped in sajj. The pie tasted best when paired with a few zingy, crunchy pickles. Grab a chilled bottle of ayran, a popular yogurt drink, for a refreshing complement to the hearty food.
Mama's Bakery and Deli combines a closet-sized ordering hub with a roomy patio space; a few extra tables spill onto the sidewalk. Paper plates and plastic cutlery add to the eatery's low-key vibe. Somehow, all these less-than-polished elements make sense for a restaurant that's been around for 20-plus years.
The hangout's "bakery" component is a glass display case chockfull of Lebanese pastries, or baklawa. I found the sticky honey cake overwhelmingly sweet, but the cashew "fingers" were delightfully nutty and crisp. Still, it's the fried-eggplant wrap that will inspire my future visits. Its slow, smoky flavor made for an altogether luscious meal—the buttery roasted eggplant rivaled only by my grandfather's winning version.