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Dishin’ on the Dish: Arab swag tacos at Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen

Cedars’ Arab swag tacos are a tasty and prime example of a Middle Eastern and Midwestern infusion of cultures and flavors. 

What’s cookin’ in and around Chicago? Here’s a closer look at one of the area’s delicious dishes you don’t want to miss.

Cedars has been known for its traditional Mediterranean cuisine for decades, but the late founder Sudki Abdullah’s son has recently started to bring in new and inspired twists on classic flavors.

“In the last two years, after my father passed ... I took over and I had a theme of like, ‘Well, I’m not just Middle Eastern, I’m very American, very western,’” owner Amer Abdullah said. “So I was like, ‘I think the theme would be more accurate if I put my fingerprints on it.’ Middle East meets Midwest, and that’s kind of what we do.”

The Arab swag tacos at Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen are a tasty and prime example of that infusion of cultures and flavors.

The idea of making Middle Eastern tacos came from Abdullah’s partner, Kinan Moufti, but it took a few tries to get it right.

Arab swag tacos served at Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen.
Arab swag tacos served at Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“He gave it a shot… He made them, the worst tacos ever,” Abdullah said with a laugh.

Luckily, Rocio Garcia, another team member, stepped in and offered to help. Garcia drew inspiration from online before the Cedars team perfected the recipe.

“So that’s how it was born. We wanted to do taco Tuesday, and [Garcia] came up with a recipe,” Abdullah said.

The key ingredient of the Arab swag tacos is Cedars’ traditional slow-cooked chicken shawarma, which is marinated for at least a day before the chicken thighs are layered on the vertical rotisserie.

The shawarma is certainly one of the stars of the dish along with Cedars’ spicy tahini sauce and nutty chili salsa. The tacos also have layers of diced tomatoes, sumac onions, roasted corn and chopped jalapeños and are enclosed in a buttered and toasted corn tortilla.

“It’s really a great combination,” Abdullah said. “It was like trying to find the right balance of all these flavors that do not normally come together… It’s a really delightful Mideast meets Midwest meets Puebla, Mexico, experience.”

Customers were initially very surprised by the idea of tacos at a mediterranean restaurant, Abdullah said.

“I think it was literally love at first bite. People tried them and the next thing you know it was like 50 orders every Tuesday, 75 orders every Tuesday, and it just kept going up and up from there,” Abdullah said.

While it’s a “very unexpected” combination, Abdullah said that’s “kind of our personality. We kind of like to surprise people a little bit with some of the things we’re doing.”

Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, 1206 E. 53rd Street. Three Arab swag tacos with a side of rice and harissa hot sauce cost $12. Visit https://www.eatcedars.com.

Got a favorite dish from a Chicago-area restaurant? Let us know via email at: dishinonthedish@suntimes.com.