Tom Harper: The story behind Aladdin Cafe, celebrating 24 years in Lawrence (Column)

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During a family meal at Aladdin Cafe recently, Mohammed Iskandrani shared with my wife, Terri, and I that he would be celebrating his 24th anniversary at 1021 Massachusetts St. this month.

Since its inception, Aladdin Cafe has been one of our “go-to” restaurants on our list of downtown eateries. The myriad of spices and beautiful presentation always bring pleasure and comfort.

The anniversary seemed like the perfect opportunity to sit down with Iskandrani to ask him a few questions about his restaurant.

Iskandrani has curated a diverse menu of Middle Eastern dishes that covers the large umbrella you expect to see in a restaurant like his. Asked about the countries his menu stems from, he quickly references “Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt.” 

These cultures utilize the same spices, flavors and types of dishes he serves.

“Aladdin’s is a family-style restaurant,” he says proudly. “Everything is made from scratch; it’s authentic.”

I was curious about his interest in cooking and who his mentors were. 

“I just love to cook; I’ve always loved cooking for people,” he says. “My mom, she’s my first mentor. In fact, my mom and dad both loved to cook.” 

It was his mother who inspired him to open Aladdin Cafe. Iskandrani recalls one day in 1999, they were dining out front of the restaurant that previously occupied the same building, Jerusalem Cafe.

Contributed photo Iskandrani (right) and his mother

“She was visiting from Jordan for the first time and offered to move to Lawrence if I would open the restaurant here,” Iskandrani says.

Iskandrani‘s mother passed away in 2018. 

“She loved cooking and loved Lawrence,” he says fondly. “Every morning she was here at 7 a.m. prepping, and when she wasn’t prepping, she was walking up and down Mass Street visiting with people or sitting in the Japanese Friendship Garden.” 

Iskandrani’s father died shortly after in 2019. 

Iskandrani also loves Lawrence and Massachusetts Street. 

“The people here are so friendly. I travel a lot and there is no other place I want to live; I want to live here the rest of my life,” he says. 

Of locating on Massachusetts Street, he says, “It’s the happening place to be. It’s where the people are. The people are friendly; I feel welcome here.”

Iskandrani says his favorite dishes on the menu are chicken shawarma and sumac chicken.

“I know the chicken shawarma is your favorite,” he says, smiling at me.

After 18 years of leasing the building from Rod Ernst, the former owner of Ernst & Son Hardware on Massachusetts Street, Iskandrani had the opportunity to purchase the building from the family after Ernst’s death in 2018. 

He hired Landon Harness of Form and Function to renovate the second floor, which had been vacant since the 1980s. The second floor is now leased to various small businesses. Local attorney and historic preservationist Patrick Watkins helped Iskandrani apply for historic tax credits to help with the costs of renovating the building. 

Lawrence is so fortunate to have Iskandrani and his team providing our community with a delicious and diverse menu to enjoy with friends and family in historic downtown Lawrence. 

About the writer

Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.

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