One of the great pleasures of my job lies in stumbling over dishes I’ve never tried before — and being delighted by them. Luckily, New York City has a seemingly endless supply. One recent example was the samke at Semkeh, a restaurant whose name represents an alternate spelling of the dish. Baked fish — in this case albacore — is plunged into a thick sauce of tahini laced with extravagant quantities of garlic. It is then rolled up in a flatbread with parsley, onions, and tomatoes. It’s like a richer cousin of the standard tuna sandwich, but packed with a garlicky wallop that will have you breathing fire like a dragon for hours afterward.
Semkeh opened just before the pandemic hit on a side street in Bushwick, not far from the Morgan stop on the L. The owners are Mustang Jabakhanji, who takes the orders at an exterior window and chats up the customers, and Norman Alsaidi, who also works as the chef. The exterior of this building, which appears to have once been a garage, is painted bright white with red squiggles here and there. Step onto the front porch to order, then go to the curbside shed to wait for your order. As for now, there’s no indoor seating, and a look through the window suggests that most of the space is taken up by an area where the food is prepared.
Jabakhanji hails from the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, and many of the menu’s dishes are standards there. The fiery samke harra mentioned above is available only as a sandwich and not as a platter. Another signature dish is batata harra ($6), where potatoes cut into large cubes are twice-fried — the first time by themselves and then another time with a coating of garlic and spices. Finally, the spuds are spritzed with lemon, making for a pleasing sourness — in addition to the garlic explosion.
Miraculously, these potatoes can be made into another one of the rolled sandwiches, using a flatbread far superior to a pocket pita (that too often has the texture of cardboard). Come to think of it, fried potato sandwiches are a fairly rare phenomenon, although it’s easy enough to find sandwiches with a handful of fries added (Souvlaki GR, for example, has a nice selection). The rolled sandwich treatment at Semkeh is available with a total of 13 fillings, including a chicken kebab, baba ganoush, beef shish kebab, and “fauli-flower” (falafel balls made from cauliflower, perhaps aimed at keto-diet enthusiasts).
One filling I missed out on was sujuk, a runty dried-beef sausage that can come on a string of 10 or so links. On one visit, Jabakhanji told me the sausage was made in the restaurant’s kitchen and wouldn’t be ready for a few more hours. He recommended, instead, the restaurant’s kufte, a skinless combination beef and lamb sausage, also made on the premises. The meats are coarsely ground together and formed into a long column with tapered ends on a stainless steel skewer, which are then flame-grilled.
The kufte entree ($17) comes with two skewers of impressive size, really more than enough for two diners, especially when consumed with the hummus and fattoush that come automatically alongside. The hummus arrives swimming in olive oil afloat with chickpeas, which feels redundant because the hummus is already made with them; while the fattoush might be just another romaine salad if it weren’t for the unexpectedly crunchy fried pita shards that add to every bite.
The menu has its hidden gems that you might be tempted not to try because of the large portions of food of every selection on the menu. There’s a lemonade ($4) made with fresh lemons and further flavored with mint, making an alarmingly green beverage that also tastes great. And neither are desserts neglected, with a rolled baklava that’s incredibly light despite the appearance of density, and delivering a crunch that you may enjoy — as I did — while heading for the subway, with what’s left of industrial Bushwick dustily spreading on either side, its earth movers and cement mixers groaning loudly.