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This past Thanksgiving, our first as a married couple, we didn’t dare try cooking a turkey at home. So we decided to go camping. So our most pressing question has become: what to eat?
We needed food that kept well and didn’t need to be reheated. So the day before we hit the road, we raided Baba’s Pantry, a cozy and colorful Palestinian-American deli, and loaded up on our favorite spreads, toasted pita chips, and assorted pickled vegetables.
We’ve been regulars there since Fall 2021, shortly after the mom and pop deli opened at 1019 E. 63rd St., just west of Troost Avenue. The restaurant of the same name, Yahia “Baba” Kamal, and her family have transformed the space that had been empty for two decades into a bustling deli that, on a busy day, serves 300 people.
Known to all as “Baba”, which is Arabic for dad, Baba grew up in Tulkarem, a farming community in the West Bank. Since moving here in 2000, he’s become known as the “hummus king” of Kansas City.
Baba says he goes “on the hunt” for the freshest ingredients, which is evident in the feast that ends up on your plate.
Luke loves the chicken shawarma ($10.99) with fries ($4.20). Baba’s team marinates the chicken in a blend of curry powder, garlic, cumin, coriander and other spices. After a day or two it is grilled, sliced and put in a pan with a drizzle of oil. The chicken makes its way into pita bread or a wrap alongside hummus and your choice of toppings – Luke gets the crunchy pickled turnips and cucumbers.
If you want spice, you can add shatta sauce or torshi. The sandwich is then topped with a drizzle of tahini or yogurt.
Baba and Anna share a favorite item on the menu: hummus. It’s a little spicy and oh so silky smooth. The mass-produced hummus in grocery stores pales in comparison.
Baba let us know why. Every morning he’s in the kitchen at dawn, cooking about 60 kilos of dried chickpeas that he soaked the night before, then adds tahini, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt. Then he tops the spread with thick pools of the best olive oil he can find.
What makes your hummus so creamy?
“Tender love indeed, because you have to babysit him and be patient,” said Baba.
For $5.99 you can grab an 8-ounce container of its best-selling item. And it’s the perfect appetizer for a picnic, potluck, or game spread. Or Thanksgiving.
On a recent Wednesday, Anna spiced up her hummus with shatta ($6.99), a hot red pepper paste that adds a kick when cleaned of the hummus with a triangle of warm pita bread. She also indulged in the mazza olive ($6.99) and Baba’s torshi ($7.99), a mix of pickled vegetables.
With its recent success — namely, a spot on Bon Appetit’s Top 10 New Restaurants list — Baba’s gets busy, especially on Saturdays. While dine-in is absolutely worth the wait for made-to-order falafel or freshly cut shawarma, take-out pantry items are an excellent and even faster option.
Dropping into Baba’s is a glimpse into the life of a man who came to Kansas City, which he affably calls his “hometown,” after moving from the West Bank to Oklahoma in 1979 for college.
When we sat down for a late lunch, before the dinner rush, which starts around 5, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Baba and his son Kamal Kamal then joined us at the table.
At 62, Baba has a white mustache and an infectious smile. He has built a restaurant as welcoming as his personality. The walls are adorned with the Palestinian flag and photos of Middle Eastern celebrities and family members, including his mother and father. Turkish coffee in hand, he pointed to other treasures, including a Palestinian cloth his mother gave him decades ago. The threads inspired the restaurant’s vibrant paint colors.
For Kamal, the space his family built and the success they’ve seen as a Palestinian restaurant in the Midwest are “revolutionary.” It’s not just about eating, but about establishing an identity and creating a place where everyone is welcome.
And welcome they are. Baba is most comfortable in the kitchen, but often goes out to greet guests or humbly receive gifts, including saffron, homemade produce, and the colorful Guatemalan baseball cap he wore that day.
On our way out we had a look at the receipt. Printed at the bottom were the words echoing from Baba’s mouth: “Thank you my friend!”
But I think we are the ones to thank.