To be honest, Mo Zaben was a little grumpy last Saturday morning when he unlocked the door to start the business day at Mo’s Best Eatery, his deli carry-out and Italian/Middle Eastern spot in South Arlington. His place has started to earn strong buzz, bringing hungry first-time visitors who don’t understand that he has a tiny kitchen and wait staff (specifically, just him, his mother, and maybe one or two other relatives). “We are not a franchise,” he sighed as he tied on his apron. All newcomers are welcome, of course, but the Zaben clan doesn’t make food quickly and can sometimes get backed up with orders. Once you watch the obvious care these folks put into preparing their appetizers and entrées –– and especially once you try one –– you’ll settle into mellow Mo Standard Time and happily wait for your chow.
Although the menu describes Mo’s as a dine-in place, there are only a couple of small tables in front of the deli counter and cash register. It’s primarily a takeout joint. Mo and his mom putter around the stovetop, ovens, meat slicer, and deep fryer, making your order in front of you while a wall TV plays ESPN.
First we sampled two of the fried appetizers. The onion rings –– large hoops of white onion dipped in a thick, pale batter that was crunchy but not crumbly –– were very good. But the mozzarella sticks were marvelous, putting most sports bar versions to shame. The long rectangles of the fresh, tangy Italian white cheese were soft in the middle but firm around the edges.
The word “healthy” doesn’t apply to much on this menu, but we did try two salad entrées. The Middle Eastern combo platter featured Mo’s mom’s homemade versions of the cracked wheat and parsley mix tabbouleh, the chickpea dip hummus, and the yogurt-eggplant dip baba ghannouj. The avocado salad offered many fat chunks of that green fruit mixed with crunchy iceberg lettuce, white onion, tomato wedges, and crisp cucumber slices with a seasoned vinaigrette-type dressing. Even with such simple ingredients, it was a memorable blend of crunchy and soft textures and sharp veggie flavors. And if you’re tired of bland hummus and tabbouleh, Mo’s mom’s stellar recipes have some tasty surprises –– her velvety hummus is fired with a couple of different hot pepper flavors, and the minced ingredients in her tabbouleh deliver prominent bits of aromatic garlic for lovers of that pungent clove.
Sandwich choices include “Philly steak,” turkey, pastrami, Middle Eastern-style roast beef, meatballs, and sausage. Mo seasons, cures, grinds, and slices most of the meats himself, serving them on dark, flaky hoagie rolls as either half-pound or full pound monstrosities. (The one-pounders are called “grinders.”) The half-pound sizes of the pastrami and Middle Eastern roast beef arrived piping hot and packed to bursting with sliced meats, gooey white cheese, thinly shredded lettuce, tomato slices, and a modest swipe of both mayo and spicy mustard. Both the pastrami and the roast beef were thicker cut, leaner, and drier than most deli versions, but they had more pure beef flavor without any slippery, over-processed texture. The Middle Eastern roast beef had strategic spots of savory fat to keep the flavor charged.
Mo’s also makes Northeastern-style pizza and pasta dishes, including spaghetti, lasagna, fettuccine, and penne. Mo’s Best Pasta Dish with chicken (you can also get shrimp) was a generous tumble of steaming hot penne tubes spotted with sharp flecks of fresh basil and covered in a heavenly lemon-butter parmesan sauce with little shreds of spinach and tender chunks of white meat.
Mo may feel a little besieged by all the new customers his grub is attracting, but be friendly and patient with him. The Zaben family’s decadent, fresh-made specialties are worth the wait.
Mo’s Best Eatery
4004 Little Rd, Arlington. 817-561-4522. 11am-8pm Sun, 11am-9pm Tue-Sat. Closed Mon.
Onion rings …………….. $4.99
Avocado salad ………… $5.99
Roast beef sandwich .. $8.00
Mo’s Best Pasta Dish .. $9.99