Where East Meets East Valley

Native drinks pack the same kind of wallop. If you're curious, try jallab, a sweet, rose-water-flavored raisin drink, topped with floating pine nuts. I suspect that jallab probably won't be turning up anytime soon at the CircleK beverage counter. On the other hand, the strong, aromatic Turkish coffee here is simply outstanding, as good as I've had in the Valley.

Unpretentious and reliable, Sinbad has everything it takes to become your budget-friendly neighborhood ethnic hangout.

Cleopatra's, 456 West Main, Mesa, 962-7914. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8p.m.

Like Sinbad, Cleopatra's also operates out of a strip-mall storefront. Inside, though, it's a bit spiffier than the competition: The tables are adorned with pink tablecloths (in serious need of ironing) topped with white paper place mats; small vases are filled with silk flowers; framed Egyptian prints line the walls; and Oriental carpets are set down where the belly dancer performs.

Yes, on Friday and Saturday nights Cleopatra's turns belly dancing loose on Mesa. I haven't seen shaking like this since my wife had malaria, and I'm not sure Mesa is ready for it. After the performer finished her set, she wiggled over to the occupied tables, where untrained locals neglected to show their appreciation with anything except smiles. Then she shimmied over our way, where our educated group of belly-dancing scholars knowledgeably jammed greenbacks into various parts of her outfit. "Thank God somebody here knows what to do," she exclaimed, as her elastic waistband snapped around our dollar bills.

Somebody also seems to know what he's doing in the kitchen. The Egyptian proprietor seems to be hedging his bets somewhat, unsure whether Mesans will venture into a place serving unfamiliar ethnic fare. So he's put pizza, lamb chops, shrimp scampi and chopped sirloin on the menu. But the purely Middle Eastern dishes are good enough to sustain the restaurant on their own.

The best way to sample almost everything in the cook's arsenal is to go for the Mediterranean Feast, carried to the table on an oversize metal tray. The menu says it should satisfy two or three people. Yes, it should--for several days. Unless your group plays defensive-line positions for the Dallas Cowboys, the Mediterranean Feast should handle four appetites.

The meal begins with an assortment of appetizers. Baba ghanouj is exceptional, loaded with a strong, roasted eggplant flavor. Stuffed grape leaves are also well-fashioned, armed with a lemony zing. Hummus and tabbouleh are authentically crafted, as is the spinach pie we ordered à la carte.

The foul moudammas, however, wasn't so authentic. It's an Egyptian specialty made with fava beans dressed with garlic and lemon. But Cleopatra's substituted another variety of bean. No great harm, but it made me wary about corner-cutting elsewhere.

Fortunately, if there was more corner-cutting, I couldn't detect it. All the Middle Eastern entrees found their way to our pleasure zones.

The Mediterranean Feast gives you an ample taste of four different grilled kebabs, all of them first-rate. Lamb kebab is tender and juicy; marinated beef kebab is lean and beefy; chicken kebab is moist and tasty; and the kafta kebab is vigorously seasoned and fragrant. Two other nice touches are the skewers of grilled tomatoes, peppers and onions, and slabs of gyro meat that weren't advertised on the menu, but came along for the ride anyway. All together, we counted 14 skewers, plus the gyro.

One part of the platter that could use a bit of work, however, is the rice. It's dull, about the only thing here that doesn't have enough zest.

Chicken shawarma is one of the few menu items that doesn't show up on the Mediterranean Feast. Don't overlook it. The grilled, marinated white-meat chicken comes moistened in a beguiling yogurt sauce. It's accompanied by an excellent salad, too, stocked with olives, cucumbers and feta.

After you've watched the floor show and polished off dinner, linger with sticky homemade baklava and scented Turkish coffee. That way, for at least a few more minutes, you can plausibly sustain the illusion that you can't possibly be in Mesa.

Lubieh bizzeyt
Kibbeh nayeh
Honey pudding

Foul moudammas
Chicken shawarma
Mediterranean Feast

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