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Stick around for dessert. Middle Eastern desserts can often be overpoweringly sweet, but Al Amir's homemade treats avoid that trap. Honey-soaked baklava is a turn-on, and so is the cylinder of date-stuffed phyllo dough. But for real excitement, try knafeh, a warm cheese pastry smothered in syrup.
The only weakness in Al Amir's arsenal? The Arabic coffee--it's watery and lacks a cardamom-scented punch.
These days, you don't need a magic carpet to get an authentic taste of the Middle East. All it takes is directions to Al Amir.
King Tut Cafe, 1044 South Terrace, Tempe, 921-1670. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
King Tut is not the kind of restaurant that's going to attract folks looking to whoop it up on a Saturday night. It draws a somewhat different clientele: budget-challenged ASU students and homesick natives, both looking for a comfortable place to relax and fill up, a home away from home.
It doesn't take long to figure out why King Tut has a heavy Middle Eastern customer base. On one visit, I saw the accommodating staff bring out a hookah to a patio table. It's a Middle Eastern water pipe, designed with a long hose that passes through an urn of water which cools the tobacco fumes as they're drawn through. You see hookahs in use at restaurants all across the region (by men only), but this is the first time I've seen a public exhibition in our neck of the desert.
King Tut also has a giant-screen television and satellite dish, which brings in signals from the Arab-language station in Washington, D.C. I didn't catch the title of the featured Egyptian movie one evening, but it was a hoot. (King Tut's proprietors are Egyptian.) Obviously a government-sponsored production, the film followed the evil machinations of the Islamic Brotherhood, while we followed along through the English subtitles. Aiming to drive out Western influence and turn Egypt into a Muslim state, these bad guys shot up a busload of innocent tourists. In the end, to no one's surprise, the valiant Egyptian security forces prevailed.
While the movie had neither subtlety nor artistic merit, the food at King Tut has some of both. The appetizers are particularly effective. The hummus may be the best in town: fresh, creamy and vibrant with the flavors of lemon, garlic and tahini. Gebna bel tamaten is also first-rate, a small salad put together with diced tomatoes, onions and crumbled feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil.
Badingan mekhallel makes no concession to Western taste buds. It's pickled eggplant, stuffed with enough garlic to keep the werewolves at bay for about a thousand years.
Unlike the fatayar at Al Amir, the one here is dull, squishy dough lined with a bit of innocuous meat. The tabbouleh isn't quite up to standard, either, falling short in the zest department.
If you prefer your nibbles deep-fat fried, samboosa make a good choice. They're related to Indian samosa: crispy pouches filled with seasoned meat and pine nuts. The kobeda also shows why the Middle East is often described as "oil rich." You get three deftly crafted, egg-shaped balls rolled with bulgur, meat and pine nuts.
The main dishes don't have quite the same flair as the appetizers. King Tut's version of moussaka, however, aroused my enthusiasm. That's because I love eggplant, and this moussaka is basically an eggplant pie, lightly seasoned with ground beef. Unlike the Greek model, this dish is moistened with a rich tomato sauce, not the traditional bechamel sauce.
If you're into animal protein, the kofta mashweya should satisfy your craving. They're Middle Eastern meatballs, ground beef mixed with onions and parsley, and you get at least a pound of them.
I haven't seen koshari served at other Valley Middle Eastern restaurants. Maybe they should be: It's a starchy blend of rice, lentils and elbow macaroni, coated with an unexpectedly spicy tomato sauce and yummy fried onions.
Sadly, there's nothing notable about the other dinner staples. The kitchen doesn't seem to have its heart in the overcooked shish kebab, lackluster chicken or shawarma that's been grilled instead of sliced off a rotisserie.
But the kitchen does take an interest in desserts. They're scrumptious, especially the besboosa, a semolina flour cake drenched in sweet syrup and sprinkled with coconut and nuts, and the knafeh, topped with crushed pistachios. The Arabic coffee is also outstanding, perfectly sludgy and sweet.
Peace in the Middle East? I keep hoping. In the meantime, at least, you can find a genuine piece of the Middle East at King Tut.
Kebbe bil sanyeh
King Tut Cafe: