Mount Washington may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think Cheap Eats, but the Desert Café's Middle-Eastern fare serves as an oasis of good and incredibly affordable food in North Baltimore. Its hearty and appetizing, if rarely exceptional, dishes are served in a pleasant atmosphere. The small restaurant is brightly decorated with fabric draped across the ceiling, and belly dancer Zahirah gyrates between the tables on Saturday nights. Getting a comfortable seat in the tiny confines is a crap shoot, however, and your ability to talk to your dinner companions may be hindered by overly loud belly-dancing music. Still, you won't mind once you sink a spoon into a bowl of rich, satisfying curried split-pea or black-bean soup ($3.50).
The combination platter ($7.95) is a fabulous appetizer to share, with tangy hummus, creamy baba ghanouj, warm pita for scooping the concoctions into your mouth, and savory hand-rolled grape leaves that are neither bland nor mushy, as is so often the case. The grilled chicken gyro ($7.95) is enjoyable if a bit goopy--it could have done with a bit less yogurt sauce--and the mango curry chicken platter ($5.95) is sweet and filling if almost entirely lacking in mango. But the highlight is the heavenly spanakopita ($6.50), a perfect rich and flaky combination of spinach and feta. The house desserts (especially the dense but tasty baklava) are also a treat. And with the most expensive item on the menu costing a whopping $8.95, you can indulge as much and as often as you like.