There are restaurants for special occasions, places for a night of escaping all cares and putting yourself in the hands of professional pamperers. Then there are survival restaurants, commercial kitchens that provide sustenance at prices you can weave into your weekly budget.
At survival restaurants, décor is irrelevant. Service means getting what you pay for, in containers that won't leak on the way home, and timeliness. Survival restaurants need to have your order ready because "nutrition pit stop" is only one of three missions you're tracking in your head like an air traffic controller. No one wants to helplessly wait for food while back at the nest your hatchlings point their hungry beaks skyward.
There's a survival restaurant I've wanted to tell you about that's been strong in flavor and value, but only recently got its service straightened out. Eaters of Buffalo, may I present: Alibaba Kebab.
This Indian restaurant is located on a sliver of Broadway-Fillmore real estate where Memorial Drive meets William Street. It has a small parking lot that's frequently full at lunch and dinner as people pile in for wraps, curries, kabobs and rice dishes. Seating accommodations are limited to a few fast-food-style picnic benches.
But I don’t go there to hang out. The reason I keep coming back is the food.
Like most Indian restaurants, Alibaba Kebab has a tandoor, a clay-lined oven for making fresh flatbread and roasting proteins at high temperatures.
For $6, you can get a piece of still-warm naan bread wrapped around chicken, beef or falafel, with lettuce, tomato, onion and two sauces, green herbed yogurt and white garlic mayonnaise. The hefty wraps make a filling, flavorful lunch, and they're an easy introduction to the tandoori meats that make up the heart of the order here.
Tandoori chicken is marinated in yogurt, garlic and a mixture of more than 20 spices, including cardamom, then chopped for the wraps and other dishes. Beef sheesh is a spiced ground beef mixture that's fired in the tandoor before being served as is ($3.99) or as part of other dishes. Both are excellent versions, crusted by the fire without becoming dry. A chicken sheesh kabob does the same with coarsely ground chicken.
Those meats and falafel also are served over fragrant basmati rice tossed with crunchy bits of red onion, and topped with the restaurant's green and white sauces. (The sauces can be served on the side at request.) Those "rice boxes" come in regular and large sizes, and they are perhaps Alibaba Kebab's signal achievement.
The well-spiced meat and the sauces' richness and tang cut through a heap of fluffy rice and makes them an exemplar of mildly exotic comfort food. Regular sizes are $8.99-$9.99 depending on protein. My favorites were the beef sheesh and tandoori chicken versions. A fish version ($8.99), with rousingly spiced tilapia, was also successful. Half of a large-sized rice box (only $2 more) is a decent workday lunch, and they reheat well.
Lamb fans should note that three thick loin lamb chops, done medium-well, get the rice box treatment as well. At $12.99, it's one of the better value lamb chop dishes around.
Alibaba also offers an excellent non-fried, non-traditional chicken wing option. Chicken wings get a ride in the same spiced yogurt marinade as the tandoori chicken, then are threaded onto skewers and lowered into the tandoor. They emerge with crunchy charred edges, and can be served as is or tossed with a handful of fresh cilantro and Frank's-like cayenne hot sauce for more tingly heat. They're served with blue cheese dressing or the Alibaba white or green sauces (10 for $9.99).
Kabobs include a notably tender chicken botti, $8.99 for three sticks of marinated chicken breast interspersed with onion and bell pepper. Somehow, the chicken breast escaped dryness. Beef botti ($8.99) was the only blunder I spotted at Alibaba, having been overmarinated into mushiness.
There's a dozen curries on the menu. As a group, they're solid, not spectacular. Meaty options like butter chicken ($6.99) and bone-in goat ($7.99) were flavorful, not fiery. Chana masala, curried chickpeas in tomato gravy ($4.99), and palak paneer, spinach with cheese, were warm, welcome vegetarian entrees. Those prices don't include rice ($3) or naan ($1.49, $1.99 with the highly recommended garlic butter upgrade).
Another recommended add-on are potato samosas ($1.49, four/$4.99), crispy thin-skinned triangles filled with potato made lively with chile flakes and other spices. A mango lassi ($2.99), or yogurt shake, was unbalanced on the sweet side, mango flavor overwhelming the yogurt tang.
The first time you go, allot extra time if you want to look over the menu. After that you can call in and your food should be ready within five minutes of the specified time. (Owner Anand Kattu and his crew haven't been perfect, but delays have become tolerable.) Like many others in town, the restaurant also arranges deliveries through the Skip the Dishes online service.
There's stuff like chicken tenders and fries ($8.99) too, but you can find that everywhere. The treasure here is Bombay flavors at Buffalo-friendly prices. If you're amenable to Indian cuisine and won't give Alibaba Kebab a try, all I can say is: sheesh.
Alibaba Kebab – 8 plates (out of 10)
900 William St. (800-2222)
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $2.49-$5.99; wraps $6.99-$7.99, meals $4.99
Parking: small lot
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: few options.