BELLINGHAM - From the outside, Mediterranean Specialties Café looks more like a store than a restaurant.
In fact, the exotic line of specialty groceries takes up most of the space inside. But there is a short, not-to-be-missed menu of Lebanese dishes that you can eat at a table inside or take home.
Three sisters - Marie Boulos, Dorine Boulos and Nahla Gholam - have been running this engaging little business for 12 years, at one end of the same strip mall that is home to a Valero gas station, Mi Casa Mexican restaurant, and Q Qli's Chinese Cuisine. All of the restaurants have been struggling since the shutdown of the Sehome cinemas.
On our recent visit, we enjoyed a kibbe platter, $10.95, and a grilled chicken panini with basil pesto, $6.95.
The seasonings in these dishes are subtle and savory. I especially enjoyed the kibbe, a dish I have not sampled since I lived in the Detroit area in the 1970s.
Some version of kibbe appears in a variety of eastern Mediterranean cuisines. This version uses a finely ground and seasoned beef, stuffed with pine nuts, caramelized onion and herbs, and grilled until the outside is golden-brown, crispy and chewy. It is served in a pie-shaped slice, accompanied by a tangy tzatziki yogurt sauce, pita wedges and a generous cup of barley chicken soup. It made a very satisfying and unusual lunch.
You can enjoy a taste of baklava as a coda. It is sold here in bite-size pieces for $1.25 each. Baklava is always good, but the Mediterranean Specialties offering seems a cut above what I have sampled elsewhere in the area, with a very delicate texture that is flaky, not papery.
Other options for sit-down dining are a falafel plate, $7.95; chicken or beef gyro, $6.95; veggie kibbe wrap, $6.95; and lamb shawarma, a sliced meat dish, $7.95.
When you visit the first time, you will want to browse the many unusual items on the grocery shelves, including house-prepared spice blends, house-made soups ready to take home from the cooler, coffees and teas, wines and beers, and an array of out-of-the ordinary pastas, condiments and relishes. There is even a small cookbook section if you want to get serious about making your own Mediterranean food.
Among the items I noted were Bosnian coffee and Palestinian couscous, said to be produced by "women-owned Palestinian cooperatives."
MEDITERRANEAN SPECIALTIES CAFÉ
Location: 505 32nd St., near Sehome Village, Bellingham.
Price range: $7-11.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.