Review: Arber Café in South City
An ideal spot for a midday refuel, Arber Café is a South City treasure with heavenly baked goods. The restaurant turns out traditional Albanian dishes and classic Mediterranean comfort food, and pictures of the owner’s native Albania line the walls for a cozy coffeehouse vibe.
A delight to any serious carnivore, the massive gyro deluxe is double-stuffed with thick slices of lamb-beef gyro meat and qofte, a traditional Albanian meatball laden with garlic, oregano and a heavy dose of coarse-ground pepper. These are tucked into a pillow of pita along with red onion, feta and tomato and served with a generous supply of house-made yogurt sauce, fresh cucumber and garlic.
Ali Pash Tepelena Rice
Though not featured on the regular menu, this traditional Albanian meat and rice dish is a crowd favorite. It is regularly catered to the International Institute of St. Louis’ weekly lunch and shows up as a special at Arber. The Old World dish begins with a bed of savory arborio rice studded with crunchy bits of almonds and raisins for a hint of natural sweetness. A heaping portion of grilled chicken, marinated simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, rests on top.
This fresh, citrusy vegetarian dish bursts with bold colors. True to its origins in southern Albania, an environment rich in olive groves and lemon trees, this classic salad leans heavily on chopped oranges, lemons and olive oil. Rich kalamata olives are accented nicely by chopped red onion and flakes of oregano.
A pilgrimage to Arber Café would be incomplete without an order of byrek. Served in four pieces, these crispy phyllo pastries are stuffed with a choice of spinach, cheese or ground beef with spices. The fresh spinach includes feta and strong hints of mint and oregano for a warm, crunchy pocket of cheesy goodness. The unique, savory ground beef byrek delivered notes of garlic, onion and oregano with a satisfying crunch.
Traditional Albanian pettula, or fried dough, is a crispy, sweet indulgence of the highest order. Thick, yeasted dough balls are pan-fried to order and sprinkled with crushed pistachios and honey. Simple and seductively sweet, a six-piece order is worth a trip in itself.
Unless you’re ordering for pickup, don’t expect grab-and-go speed. Be prepared to settle in with a coffee while you wait.
Matt Berkley is a longtime critic for Sauce Magazine.
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