It was a Tuesday at 7 p.m., and the restaurant parking lot cleared of cars. Brightly colored tables and chairs took their place. We asked if there was a party. The server said there’s one every night. “You should see the place at 1 in the morning.”
But at that time, we were the only party in the all-white restaurant: white booths, white tables, white chairs. The crowd grows on the large patio, a space that feels more like a beach party: turquoise cushions, shade from tall trees, twinkle lights strung from the branches where the view should be water and sand and not snarled traffic on Route 7.
Hookahs pass between friends. At a glance, the menu reads like any other Middle Eastern restaurant. There’s hummus and baba ghanoush and falafel. But here the falafel is bright green—a mix of chickpeas, like they do in Jerusalem, and fava beans, like they do in Egypt and Sudan.
There’s Sudanese dishes on the menu, and when I ask Kahlid Etayeb, the owner/general manager of the restaurant, about boush, something I’ve never seen before, he laughs.
“Did you like it?”
“I did,” I say.
In Sudan, boush is a peasant dish. Sudan is where Etayeb has lived, and his ancenstry includes the African country, plus the Virgin Islands, Turkey and Egypt. He explains that in the morning restaurants will boil a pot of fava beans, called fool, to serve at breakfast. ( Zaaki’s is extra creamy with pops of green pepper and cucumber.) For lunch, some will order boush, which is only the leftover fava liquid (no actual beans) poured over torn-up pita, plus a drizzle of oil and some feta.
At Zaaki, the kitchen spruces up the dish with fava beans, onion and tomato. I’m not sure why it’s such a stunning dish. It’s mostly soothing, the softened bread and cushy beans. The onion and feta add punch, character. It feels both alive and like a dream.
The more familiar dishes are the best versions of themselves. Tabbouleh is bright, reverberating with lemon; labneh is extra rich and tangy; hummus is thicker, more substantial and strong with tahini; baba ghanoush is looser, more luxurious.
Entrees are mixed. Chicken kebab is charred in the right places and crazy juicy, but the kafta kebab is woefully dry and bland, as is the lamb and chicken shawarma.
A meat pie is an umami cloud: Ground beef mixed with cumin (among other spices we’re not privy to) and tomatoes is a deeply savory mixture, almost pastelike, spread on a cracker-y crust that holds the weight but also snaps easily. It’s so good the fact that cheese is missing isn’t even an afterthought. Fries, doubly crisp, decorated in feta and labneh, would be great with a beer, or after a few, but Zaaki is dry. It instead offers fresh-pressed juices and teas. Zaaki is also open until 4 a.m. during the week and an extra hour longer on the weekends; after midnight there’s an American-style diner menu of omelets and pancakes. It opens in the morning at 11.
From the ages of 5 to 14, Etayeb lived in more than 10 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. When he says he is making sure his restaurant serves diverse customers, coming from him, it doesn’t sound like PR, PC or whatever we call it today.
They’re his recipes at the restaurant. It’s because he tasted all over the world from a very young age. It’s how he put the menu together and how he put the restaurant together. “I should see different people there every night,” he says, “or I’m not doing my job.”
6020 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church
Open daily for lunch, dinner and late-night breakfast
Appetizers: $2.99-$17.99; Entrees: $6.99-$19.99