Cheap Eats: Makkah Market

Judging from the dinky white microwave perched prominently in the dining area, or the tables that look like rummage from an off-brand burger joint installed without a level, or the sign advising diners to clear out after an hour, Makkah Market seems like an unlikely gourmet destination. But if there’s a better lunch-and-specialty-market combo in West Philly, I don’t know about it.

Actually, lunch is just what I use it for. But it’s open 24 hours, so I could hit it up for an egg-and-cheese if I wanted. Or blackened tilapia at the dinner hour; the other afternoon I noticed a dozen whole fish sizzling on the griddle at once.

Makkah Market moves a ton of food. And plenty of it is perfectly tasty, reasonably healthy, and ultra-amply portioned. Last time I ordered the mild chicken curry, studded with peas and pulses and served over a fragrant yellow rice pilaf, I ended up with three legs and a partial thigh. Not bad for six bucks and change.

Neither is $1.25 for a gigantic triangle of baklava. No wonder there’s always a crowd in here—a critical prerequisite for chafing-dish dining, to spare your stomach from dishes that sit too long.

Just the same, lunch only accounts for about one-fifth of my visits here—basically, whenever the clock reads noon and that chicken curry is in the offing. Because at Makkah, dry-goods shopping is really where it’s at.

It doesn’t take long to figure out why. Just loiter in the date section for a minute or two and the advice is liable to start rolling in. A chubby fellow with curly hair will ask you why you’re fingering the Israeli Medjools when you could get Tunisian ones. Somebody else will pooh-pooh Medjools and evangelize for the rust-colored Deglet Noors. Last time I polled the midday crowd, everyone pointed at a sleek black box of Ajwa dates from Saudi Arabia, which at $19/pound were about four times as expensive as any of the rest.

I gave them a go. Had I seen them in the posh aisles of, say, Garces Trading Company, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. But a market that competes for the cabbie trade with square meals and pre-paid global calling cards can’t risk its street-cred by selling ultra-premium luxuries that don’t live up to expectations. As it happens, my own expectations of dates are simply too modest to make a habit of super-expensive ones—but those Ajwas were a pleasurable change of pace: chewier and less sticky than Medjools and also a little less sweet, though more densely flavored. They rock in a kale salad, where their slivers separate fairly easily instead of clumping together.

Makkah is also the place to pick up Turkish pepper paste and honeyed nuts, haloumi and halal goat meat, pomegranate molasses and freekah—should you ever be in a position to need any. There’s a bursting breadbox offering everything from thin falafel-joint pita to the pillowy Turkish variety, and Ethiopian injera to hoagie rolls. There’s stuff here (like dried blueberries) that doesn’t necessarily spring readily to mind when you’re thinking about picking up some Middle Eastern supplies, and stuff that might expand your ideas about the Arabic world in general, like the non-alcoholic apple malt beverage my electrician introduced me to.

Which is all the reason you should need to check this place out—even if you don’t avail yourself of the microwave.

Makkah Market, 4249 Walnut Street. Open 24 hours.

Makkah Market [Official]