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Simple formula spells success for Ali Baba in Oakland

In season, out of season, it doesn't matter. Ali Baba, the Middle Eastern restaurant at South Craig Street in Oakland, buzzes with activity during the lunch hour. Faculty and staff from Pitt and CMU flock there in droves. During a recent visit, even with students from both universities discharged for the summer, the dining room was close to capacity during the noon hour.

"We get a lot of people from the universities, and a lot of employees that work in offices near here," says Ivan Makhoul, who founded the restaurant with his family 37 years ago.

That's no misprint. In an era when the average life expectancy of a restaurant seems equivalent to that of a fruit fly, there must be a reason Ali Baba endures and thrives.

Perhaps it's the family-owned establishment's unwavering commitment to "good quality and low prices," Makhoul says. "We keep doing our best to maintain that same formula."

That formula includes a smorgasbord of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, from kibbee to falafel to grape leaves. At lunchtime, some of the best options are specials that offer combinations of various dishes. The Student Special ($5.95) is rice with pignola nuts, a tossed salad and a choice of loobee (green beans cooked with lamb meat and tomato sauce) or baxila (green peas cooked with lamb meat and tomato sauce). The Vegetarian Special ($5.95) features the rice with pignola nuts, hummus and baba ghanooj.

For the health conscious, the Healthy Variety ($6.45) features hummus, stuffed grape leaves, an artichoke salad and a tossed salad.

Of course, there are gyros ($5.45), and Ali Baba's are almost too much to eat in one sitting. Breakfast on your mind• The Ali's Omelet ($4.95) is filled with feta cheese and broiled, then served with pita bread.

For those on a tight budget, try Sfiha ($3.95), an open-face pie of fresh dough filled with spicy ground lamb, sweet onions and tomatoes, or the Open-Face Hummus Pita Pocket ($3.95), a whole-wheat pita topped with hummus, tomatoes, spinach, feta and spices.

Ali Baba's does some interesting versions of traditional American dishes. Ali's Burger ($4.45) -- there's also an Ali's Cheeseburger ($4.95) -- consists of spiced ground lamb that's fried, put in a pita and topped with lettuce and tomato. The cheeseburger is topped with American cheese.

There's also the Homemade Syrian Pizza ($3.95), fresh dough topped with tomato sauce, green peppers, sweet onions, olives and feta.

A la carte items also are available at lunch and dinner. They included yogurt with cucumber and mint ($1.95 cup, $2.45 bowl); spinach pies ($3.95); and fatoosh ($4.95), cucumbers, parsley, lettuce, tomatoes and toasted pita chips mixed with spices, lemon juice and vinegar.

Additional Information:

Ali Baba

Location: 404 S. Craig St., Oakland

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and dinner from 4:30-9:45 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Details: 412-682-2829

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