In a Northland strip-mall storefront, Queen Sweets and Bakery is serving up some seriously tasty Middle Eastern treats
It’s hard to carve out room for dessert in a wellness culture that’s latched onto sugar as its current Big Bad. It’s harder, still, when many restaurants treat dessert as an afterthought. Pastry chefs have increasingly vanished from restaurant payrolls, and they’ve taken my appetite with them. What’s the point of another flourless chocolate torte or grainy sorbet churned out mindlessly from a kitchen that resents plating them? What exactly are we doing here?
We’re doing fine, as it turns out. But I needed a trip to a Northland strip mall to learn how to love dessert again.
Queen Sweets and Bakery opened last February in a narrow storefront between a massage parlor and a halal meat market and grocery. For the first few months of business, husband-and-wife team Mohamed and Kay Bataineh focused on the sweets. Mohamed managed the store; Kay, the executive chef, kept the pastry cases filled with battalions of baklava and platters of Jordanian cakes and confections as small and delicate as doll furniture.
You can buy Kay’s walnut or almond baklava by the pound, and it’s good enough to buy in Costco portions. But the main draws here have less of a foothold in the local dining scene. I was bowled over by the basbousa, a humble-looking semolina and coconut cake soaked in simple syrup to yield a moist but delicate crumb. On the other extreme, texture-wise, was a single-serve round of kanafeh, a spindly bird’s nest of pastry held together by a hidden disc of sweet, unsalted cheese.
My favorite was a pastry whose name Mohamed translated from the Arabic as “between two fires” (“bain nareen” appears to be the most common spelling in Latin script). Queen Sweets’ version starts with a flaky cup of phyllo dough, its edges curled like a spring-drunk flower. In goes a dollop of fresh clotted cream; on goes a sprinkling of chopped pistachios. The confection tastes deceptively clean and light, sweetened only by a crown of rose-honey syrup drizzled just before serving.
Eating the bain nareen is an exercise in visceral, childish pleasure: stiff cream that threatens to plop from the pastry, flakes of phyllo that fall onto your lap like ash, a sticky, floral syrup that coats the pads of your fingers long after you’ve finished the last flaky bite. Yes, sugar can be a mindless endorphin mine — a bowl of M&Ms in a dreary corporate cubicle. But it can also be this thoughtful, this careful, this good.
Attentiveness appears to be the Batainehs’ calling card. In May, the couple expanded the bakery into a full-service restaurant, with a lunch and dinner menu marrying northern Jordanian dishes with Lebanese recipes from Kay’s grandmother. The mashawi mix plate provides an ideal introduction to Kay’s food. Three different (halal) kebabs, each with a slightly different spice and flavor profile, sizzle atop a mound of fragrant saffron rice studded with allspice berries.
When I ordered it, the chicken pieces were juicy and rouged with spice, the lamb bites were perfectly chewy, and the koftas of ground beef were luxuriously seasoned and seared on one side for the optimal balance of tender meat and flavorful crust. Lumberjacks or couples can order a larger mashawi plate that doubles the meat and feeds two. But the single plate is still a small mountain of food. In addition to the rice, my plate was piled with a small Mediterranean salad (stippled with sumac and parsley) and a creamy, elemental hummus that let the subtle flavor of the chickpeas shine.
The lamb shank was a simpler dish but no less flavorful. Each morsel was luscious and fatty, plucked easily from the bone. The dish comes with two sides, and I’d firmly nudge you toward the dolmas if they’re available. Although they aren’t yet listed on the menu, the tangy grape leaves (stuffed with a gooey rice filling and rolled into tight little cigars) provide the ideal acidic bite to complement the rich lamb.
But if you can only order one side, make it the baba ganoush. I’ve tasted so many versions of the dip bittered with smoke and char that I’d forgotten just how good an eggplant can be. Kay’s baba ganoush is bright and garlicky, blended just to cohesion to retain a homestyle texture with a few tender islands of fruit.
Another lesson in execution: the falafel sandwich. Each puck was a textural marvel — soft but not gummy, crisp-crusted but not crumbly. For once, I was focused more on the falafel than the addictive tahini sauce that dressed it.
The shawarma sandwich applied that same sauce to a generous filling of grilled meat (you can order the sandwich with either chicken or a lamb mix, and both are delicious). Eating it was a messier endeavor — the thin flatbread couldn’t quite hold up to all that moisture — but I take a certain primal pleasure in lapping a rivulet of sauce from the inside of my wrist.
Fortunately, this isn’t a place that demands fussy etiquette. The ambience is about what you’d expect from a family-run joint in a strip mall: fluorescent lights, white drop-ceiling tiles, artificial brick-patterned facades. Ketchup comes in individual packets; the brown paper napkins are branded with the Macy’s logo.
But Mohamed knows how to craft hospitality with limited resources. As the general manager, Mohamed is the de facto face of the restaurant — he bags a steady trickle of carry-out orders for GrubHub and DoorDash drivers, weighs and boxes the sweets, and runs the register all while serving and bussing the restaurant’s scant handful of tables.
Somehow, he never seems stressed. Somehow, he finds time to describe each dish and dessert to unfamiliar diners with the unhurried air of an old friend. Somehow, the dishes always hit the table on time.
Queen Sweets and Bakery is one of those restaurants that feels paradoxically endangered by its own success. Maybe I’ve got the winter blues, or maybe I’m just burned out on the nothing-gold-can-stay lessons of the Trump epoch. Every day seems to provide another grim object lesson, another this to chalk under the column labeled why we can’t have nice things.
I would like us to keep this one nice thing, even if we have to keep it in the Northland. Queen Sweets and Bakery is a small, necessary reminder of the meaning of hospitality and the gift of a thoughtful meal.
4107 North Cherry Street, Suite C; 816-462-8252
Sunday–Thursday: 11 AM–8 PM
Friday–Saturday: 11 AM–11 PM
Order the mashawi mix plate with saffron rice and a side of baba ganoush. The only wrong choice for dessert is skipping it.