Along with hurricane season and cavernous potholes, it is a fact of life in New Orleans that it is not easy to find a good place to eat on certain days and at certain hours. Many restaurants close at some point between Sunday and Tuesday, and when it comes to dining in the wee hours, pickings can be even slimmer, especially for thoughtful, wholesome fare.
Enter Cleo's Mediterranean Cuisine & Grocery, a grocery store and restaurant in the Central Business District. The store/eatery is open 24 hours seven days a week, which is a welcome option for the neighborhood, especially for downtown service industry workers and others who keep odd or late hours. Cleo's serves hot cups of Egyptian tea, American breakfasts and Middle Eastern-style sandwiches, even if a shift at a hotel, restaurant or hospital means someone is hunting for a meal at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday.
A visit to Cleo's reveals a split vibe. Half of the clean, modern space is filled with grocery racks and refrigerators stocked with sodas, energy drinks, candy, beef jerky and similar items, and the other is fashioned as a dining room, with comfortable high-backed modern chairs and tables. Friendly service is available at the counter or via server. There's no alcohol available, but if you happen to be in the market for a hookah, Cleo has pipes for sale.
More important than its convenient hours is its cuisine. Cleo's offers, by far, some of the best, authentic Middle Eastern fare in the city. The extensive menu ranges from breakfast items — egg sandwiches with turkey bacon or sausage (no pork) — to numerous appetizers, soups, salads, seafood and vegetarian plates, as well as sandwich versions of many of popular items, including falafel, gyros, kebabs and shawarma. With sandwiches topping out at $5.50 and entrees hovering in the $12 range, the price is hard to beat.
Appetizers include spot-on hummus, plated with a lovely pool of olive oil flecked with spicy red peppers, as well as the best, smoky baba ghanoush to be found in New Orleans. The kibbeh, filled with savory lamb, spices and pine nuts, is similarly a pleasure, as is excellent falafel, with a perfectly crispy exterior and a fluffy, warm, green filling. Cool and creamy lebna offers a nice contrast to the hot starters.
Among the entrees, the lula kebab — ground lamb and beef mixed with garlic, herbs and spices — is a standout. Chicken shawarma is tender and well seasoned, but the lamb and beef versions of that dish were on the tough side, though flavorful. Shrimp kebabs were also nicely spiced and well grilled. All entrees are generously portioned, especially the ample side salad, which requires a plate of its own.
There are a couple of hitches to note at Cleo's. The naked fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling illuminate the space well, but they remind diners they're eating in a convenience store. Also, when I arrived at 9 a.m. one weekday seeking a plate of the classic Egyptian breakfast of foul (a fava bean dish), the store was — to my shock — dark, empty and locked up, despite the lighted sign flashing "OPEN" and the listed round-the-clock hours. No explanation could be found.
"Well," my companion said, "foul me once... "
Despite that experience, Cleo's is a welcome oasis in what is otherwise a desert of late-night options for inexpensive, tasty and filling cuisine.