Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches $3.50-5; dinners $5-9
Fare: Falafel, gyro and a bit more.
Atmosphere: Mostly provided by a boom box with Palestinian music
Smoking: None Permitted
They say that when one door closes, another opens, but we think this prophecy has a too passive a ring to it. More likely, those for whom this cliché is true push open the door themselves.
Take Mohammed Issa, whose food truck was among the fleet that once served Pitt students -- along with virtually everyone else who ever passed through Oakland at lunchtime -- in front of the Hillman Library. The trucks were all driven off when Schenley Plaza was transformed from a car park into a green park with self-contained food kiosks. Some of the former vendors relocated their mobile kitchens to other streets, while Issa got the keys to an empty storefront a few blocks away amidst the ethnic mélange that is Oakland Avenue.
The transition from truck to restaurant has been minimal. Leena's dining room is small and decorated mainly with plants, and the menu offers little, if anything, that wasn't sold from the truck. Frankly, we applaud Issa for sticking with what he already did best: quick and delicious Middle Eastern food.
Indeed, we were able to sample nearly the entire menu in one visit. Leena's has been best known for its falafel, and rightly so. We ordered ours as a sandwich, and were quite pleased with the balance between the lemony lettuce and tomatoes, and the moist, almost-meaty chickpea patties. While we've tried far too many dried-out lumps masquerading as falafel, these were the real deal: flavorfully seasoned, tender fritters, studded with something like pine nuts -- or was it sesame seeds? -- for additional texture.
The gyros were just as satisfying. Best of all was the homemade yogurt sauce, which saturated the entire wrap without dripping or soaking through. The reason may be Leena's use of large, whole-wheat pitas, which provide a slightly more substantial base for the fillings without dryness or doughiness. Both falafel and gyro sandwiches are available as platters with fries and a soda. Leena's shoestring fries are lightly seasoned with a hint of spiciness for a nice change of pace that doesn't weary the palate.
Moving on to slightly less familiar fare, we tried kibbee kabob. This delicacy is served not on a skewer, but rather as two fritters of minced lamb with bulgur wheat and spices inside a bulgur pastry crust. It was crunchy, grainy, well-seasoned and all-around delicious with the accompanying creamy, nutty yogurt-tahini sauce.
We had not heard of mjedra before and decided to give it a try. It turned out to be a simple but satisfying dish of lentils with rice and crispy sautéed onions. The best bites were those which included the bright tastes of the side salad, whose most interesting ingredient was lemon peel, cut in small chunks for a texture almost like cucumber. The bitter-tart flavor was the perfect foil to the earthiness of the lentils and rice. The sweet taste and crispy texture of the onions rounded out this delightfully balanced dish; we only wished for more of them.
Leena's may have lost its wheels, but with any luck, its offerings of inexpensive, appealing Middle Eastern fare have gained a long-term foundation in Oakland's restaurant scene.