From half a block away, the smell of cardamom and tahini wafts through the air and pulls you in. But if you don’t follow your nose closely, you are likely to walk right past. The only thing indicating that this second story restaurant should be explored is a colorful photographic menu in the doorway that suggests a more elaborate restaurant than what the simple “Comida Árabe” sign over the awning would lead you to believe. Al-Fares, a family run restaurant on the Northern extreme of Villa Crespo, serves homemade Syrian dishes — many of which are recognizable across the region but here feature simple alterations that nod to the family’s Damascus roots.
We arrive at 8pm on a Monday night and the place is empty. Fares Badwan, the 23 year old Syrian immigrant who runs the eponymously named eatery (in Arabic, Al-Fares means ‘the gentleman’), is running around the room adorning tables with napkins and silverware and preparing one of many coffees he’ll drink throughout the dinner service. His father, Hatam, marches up and down the stairs with platters of baklava, falafel and kibbeh — each tray is bigger than the last. The pair switch between Spanish and their native Arabic as an avalanche of regulars begin to fill up the small space.
“We want a restaurant that feels like home,” Fares begins, “this feels exactly like a place we’d eat at in Damascus.” He moved to Buenos Aires after completing his mandatory military service following an uncle who had been living in Argentina for the last two decades. At 18, he partnered up with a local producer and began fabricating a small line of clothes sold in discount markets across the city all the while saving up enough money to slowly bring over his parents and two of his three siblings. About a year ago they were finally all together in Buenos Aires.
Hatam was a chef with a small restaurant back home, and so Fares decided to transition from manufacturing clothing to recreating a Damascus style restaurant, “I don’t like to cook, but I do like to eat my mom and dad’s food all day,” Fares says with a chuckle. The restaurant has a charming Soviet era datedness to it. The furnishings are simple, light blue and yellow spotted wallpaper brightens up the room, a small picture of a horse and a jousting stick decorate the walls and a hand painted nature scene on a wood panel in the back falls forward with a strong gust of wind.
This isn’t unlike a lot of the other ‘arabic’ restaurants that dot this particular section of Palermo and Villa Crespo, but what sets Al-Fares apart from the rest is their sense of hospitality. Not just in the service, which is friendly with newcomers and familiar with regulars, but in the abundance of food and low prices. “Here in Argentina, people eat a plate of pasta for lunch,” explains Fares, “In Syria we start preparing lunch at 8 or 9 in the morning and have a dozen different dishes on the table.” The menu is built around this idea with a page full of appetizers and main dishes meant to be shared family-style, “Kebe is great on its own. But it’s even better if you mix it with some tabbouleh and hummus,” Hatam explains.
The menu is dotted with mostly recognizable dishes; they plan on introducing more regional Damascus dishes as the business continues to grow. Spices are brought by family and friends from abroad in bulk. Each dish has a specific spice combination particular to Damascus cuisine that separates them from similar dishes in other regions and neighboring countries, Hatam explained, which is what would separate an Armenian Kiufta from a Syrian shish kebab. They have a particular gift for vegetarian dishes, of which there are many options. The hummus tasted freshly made and was light and creamy serving as a cool contrast to two lesser known dishes: mutabal and mousaka. Mutabal, a thick eggplant pure, had a dense meaty texture and a combination of spices that brought out the nutty flavor of the tahini with a finish reminiscent of a light chocolate. Mousaka, which in many cultures baked like a lasagna, was prepared like as a dipping sauce—tomatoes, chickpeas and eggplant is roasted and reduced to a hearty familiar tasting sauce.
Falafel can be ordered as a sandwich or on a platter — they come on a generous dish of six and are crisp on the outside and moist within. They combine deliciously with the tabbouleh, which is prepared with a heavy hand of lemon juice. The kebe al horno was another unexpected dish; ground beef is made into a dense and grainy pie like a meat loaf. The favorite meat options was the savory shish kabab, ground beef rolled into a cylinder and cooked on a stick. It comes out slightly charred on the outside, tender from within and needed just a simple slice of fresh tomato and a touch of the onion’s acidity to pull out the savory beef flavor. Dolmas, hojas de parra in Spanish, is beef and rice stuffed into grape leaves and drenched in lemon juice. The meat and rice combo took on the texture of a dense cheese the grape leaves giving it a slightly minty flavor that takes over the palate.
Desserts are made by Hatma, although his wife Teres sometimes helps. The baklawa is a comforting dessert filled with saccharine sweet honey and lemon base topped with almonds and delicate sheets of homemade filo. Hrise is a soft pastry made with grainy semolina flour and topped with coconut and syrup. Mamul, also made with semolina flour is a hybrid of a mantecol and a merengue. It’s a dense sugary shortbread made with slightly bitter nuts. Ask for a traditional cup of coffee spiced with cardamom.
As I wrap up my lunch, Fares’ younger siblings come in from school. Hatam greets them warmly with kisses on the forehead before returning to the table to proclaim, “I am thankful everyday for this restaurant and the kindness of the people here,” with a warm grin. Teres, who spoke mostly through Fares agrees with a smile that shines through her eyes. It’s a love for family that emanates through the entire project, from their homey food to the way they great regulars with a warm embrace, everything is made with lots of love at a table where you quickly become a friend. As I’m leaving they hand me a bag of desserts, I insist on paying, but they won’t have it, “Come back and see us soon, friend.”
Araoz 1047 | Villa Crespo
Mondays from 8PM to close | Tuesday through Sunday lunch and dinner service