One area in which Baltimore ranks among America’s elite hip cities is its food scene, which seems as vibrant and cutting-edge as its music and arts. Thrillist rates it the 27th-best town for foodies as well as one of the seven most overlooked culinary meccas.

Middle Eastern food has become a trendy, exotic niche across the country over the past decade or so. Although still considered to be lagging behind more international cities like Washington, D.C. and New York City, Baltimore more than makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity in the Arabic genre. There are now more than a dozen credible Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eateries spread throughout the city and nearby suburbs, each contributing to the variety of specialties in terms of both dishes and specific nationality from Afghani to Persian and from Turkish to Lebanese.

So for all of you hungering to get your hands on some hummus or get your fill of falafel, here are Charm City’s kings of the kebab and the who’s who of couscous.

The Helmand
806 North Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
(410) 752-0311

Since helping to introduce the Middle Eastern genre here more than a quarter-century ago, The Helmand continues to be the gold standard among all ethnic eateries in Baltimore. This Afghani bistro in Mt. Vernon ranks among Baltimore City Paper’s “Dining Hall of Fame” and the Top 50 (overall) restaurants of both Baltimore Magazine and the Baltimore Sun (#14), and tops the city’s Middle Eastern entries in Zagat’s, just to name a few of its accolades — some of which it has earned multiple times. Among the fare receiving nationwide acclaim is its signature appetizer, kaddo borwani (pictured), which its menu describes as a “tenderly baked and pan-fried baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served atop a yogurt garlic sauce”. Other favorites include banjan laghatak and sabzi challow.

The Helmand’s décor is elegant and the dining experience supurb. Both on- and off-site catering is available. With surroundings and fare fit for royalty and dignitaries, it should not be surprising that the restaurant’s owner, Qayum Karzai is the elder brother of the President of Afghanistan.

Baba’s Mediterranean Kitchen
745 E. Fort Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 727-7482

Owner Farid Bishara Salloum opened this eatery about seven years ago, naming it after his beloved father (“Baba” in Arabic). Voted “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” by Baltimore City Paper in both 2009 and 2011, this small corner café in the Federal Hill/ Locust Point neighborhood offers a fusion of Mediterranean tastes including

Arabic tabouleh, Moroccan couscous, Greek spanokopita, and even Italian caprese salad. The lamb kebab and chicken kebab platters are popular specialties, as is the fattoush, the recipe for which is featured on the eatery’s website.

Seating, both inside and outdoor, is limited, and you may encounter a brief wait. It is B.Y.O.B., so be sure to bring your favorite adult beverages with you. Takeout and catering are available.

Byblos Lebanese Cuisine
1033 Light St.
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 209-2495

Also in Federal Hill is the delightful little Lebanese bistro Byblos, named for the ancient port city. It earned “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” from Baltimore Magazine in 2013 and “Best Lebanese Restaurant” from Baltimore City Paper last year. Owners Sami and Hala Tabet continue to be part of everything from the cooking to the bussing of the tables at this quaint little gem that opened in the Spring of 2010. Some of their best-loved offerings include the chicken shawarma (pictured) and beef shawarma combos – each provides generous portions at a surprisingly low price. There’s also a grab-and-go cold case containing a variety of wraps, pies, dips, and other treats.

Related:  Best Mediterranean Cuisine In Baltimore

806 Stiles Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
(410) 528-2710

Something you wouldn’t expect to find, in a place you wouldn’t expect to find it, is Ozra – a fairly new and modern-styled Persian restaurant in the heart of…Little Italy? Off to a hot start, it already earned a coveted spot among Baltimore City Paper’s Top Ten New Restaurants in 2013. The lamb soltani (pictured) is one of the stars among lunch and dinner menus filled with an eclectic variety of skewered meats, seafood, and grilled items. You’ll also find a carefully-chosen wine list and cocktail menu that features something for every taste.

Partners Reza Holland and “Max” Tabasi tried to combine “an elegant, yet simple, dining environment” with a modern, yet cozy, feel when they opened Ozra in July of 2013 in a renovated bakery space. It seats around 100 diners on two floors. Catering is available.

316 North Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21201

As the old line goes, “Come away to the Cazbar!”

From its opening in the Summer of 2006, this Mt. Vernon restaurant has brought alive Turkish food and culture. It’s the dining equivalent to a trip to Istanbul. Cazbar earned Baltimore City Paper’s “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” last year and is highly-rated by Zagat, Zomato, and OpenTable. It features multiple floors enveloped with richly-colored décor infusing modern and old world themes. Upstairs is an authentic hookah lounge. Music and belly dancers further enhance weekend night dining.

Standout dishes include adana iskender (pictured) – Cazbar’s signature Adana kebap. Also popular are the sultan’s platter and the lahmajun. Enjoy turkish coffee and excellent desserts like baklava. Catering as well as online ordering is available.

Related: Best Falafels In Baltimore

An award-winning writer, Donald Cooke is acclaimed for keen analysis of everything from sports to business to hard news. With a career that has included more than 20 years in journalism, media and marketing – spanning print, broadcast, and digital – Cooke is CEO of Xcelquest Media/Marketing in Annapolis, MD.