Balagan Kosher Mediterranean Cafe

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With the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashanah last week and Yom Kippur this weekend, I wondered about area restaurants that are kosher. (Not that a restaurant is something one seeks out for Yom Kippur. The holiday is a day of atonement, and fasting is part of the observance.)

What constitutes kosher is confusing to those who do not follow the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut. Some think it is a certain style of food or a food traditionally associated with Jewish-style delis, such as matzoh ball soup. Or that it is food that has been “blessed” by a rabbi. None of the above. Certainly, matzoh ball soup can be kosher, but it can be non-kosher, too. And kosher isn’t confined to Jewish delis. It’s quite possible for a Chinese restaurant to be kosher. In 2006, I wrote an article about Rabbi Sholom Dubov as he koshered a restaurant that was about to open in Casselberry. Here’s a link to that story, which gives more details on a very complex subject. (The restaurant in the article, Ole Gourmet, has since closed.)

In looking for local kosher restaurants, I came across a listing for one called Balagan Kosher Mediterranean Cafe. I hadn’t heard of it before, and as I looked for more information, it appeared to be smack dab in the middle of the University of Central Florida’s main campus. I called the phone number and found that, indeed, the restaurant is located in the university’s Student Union. I’ve been through the Union many times -- I wondered how I managed to miss it.

Easy to do, as it turns out. Balagan is almost literally a hole in the wall. It’s a small step-in space down a side corridor off the central area of the union. It’s not really a restaurant. Not really a cafe, either, in that there is no seating in the space (there’s barely room to stand).

But this is one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a very long time.

The menu isn’t much bigger than the space. It’s a mid-eastern, Mediterranean menu with some of the usual items such as falafel and shawarma, but there are also typical student pleases like hamburgers and hot dogs. (Yes, it’s possible for hot dogs to be kosher.) By the way, Balagan also serves halal food, which follows the Islamic dietary laws.

I decided on a beef shawarma in a pita instead of the optional roll. The man behind the counter opened up a big pocket and stood behind the portable display that had chilled trays, similar to what you’d see in a salad bar. He scooped in some hummus and some salad greens, then stepped back to a crock-pot and put in the beef. Then back to the display and he asked what other items I’d like. I told him to load it up. There was an eggplant dip, tzatziki sauce (a little extra, please), a bright green hot sauce, and a few other things I can’t recall. He wrapped it all up in a piece of foil and presented it to me on a foam plate. I took it out into the corridor, found an empty table where students sit to study or eat, and opened it up.

What wonderful flavors, what wonderful spices. And all of the juices and sauces played well together, complementing the seasoned meat. I ate only half of it and wrapped the rest up to enjoy later. But when I got back to my car, I unwrapped it and finished it off. It was that good.

Good enough to make a special trip to the campus? Yes, if you like a good shawarma and you keep kosher. Better if you’re a student of a member of the faculty and can obtain easy parking. Keep it in mind if you’re visiting campus for a football game or to attend a lecture or theatrical presentation. Or if you go to something in the UCF Arena -- turns out they also have a stand there during events.

For those of you observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy fast.

Balagan Kosher Mediterranean Cafe is in the Student Union on the campus of UCF. It is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and in the arena whenever there is an event. There is currently no website. The phone number is 407-882-0701.

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