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But poor texture returns to rattle otherwise good-tasting dolmas -- the four grape-leaf-wrapped nubbins are jarringly tart (I love that), but cold and slippery with a blend of rice, onion and garlic cooked so far down it's more paste than grain. No thanks. And spanakopita would be so much more savory if Alqardahji borrowed some of the feta from his Greek salad -- this wonderfully flaky and moist phyllo pocket tastes simply of spinach instead of its listed feta and cream cheese filling.
Mediterranean wraps put us happily back on track. My favorite is the falafel hummus, combining chickpea paste with two patties of crisply fried garbanzo beans, kissed with parsley, cilantro, garlic and onion. It's all packed into a pita, and draped with lettuce, tomato and cucumber. My only wish? A little more spicing in the crispy falafel critters.
ZakeE's specialty is wraps, in fact, and Alqardahji showers us with a commendable selection featuring various combinations of falafel, dips, lamb, chicken and beef. Shawarma is the word to remember here, meaning meats marinated for 24 hours, then cooked on vertical rotisseries and thinly sliced. It's much like gyro meat, with less of the rubbery texture and more lemon nuance. It's dry, also like gyro meat, so the better wraps, I think, are the ones pairing meats and dips.
5055 W. Ray Road
Chandler, AZ 85226-6108
Chicken and rice: $8.95
Falafel hummus wrap: $4.00
Lamb shawarma: $6.25
Beef kebab: $4.25
Cheese steak: $6.25
Hours: Lunch and early dinner, Monday though Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 7 p.m.
Lean lamb shawarma, for example, benefits greatly from a slick of hummus or baba ghanouj -- its unadorned topping of chopped onion is too bland on its own, and the thin meat finds greater dimension from the dip. Chicken holds its own a little better, the fresh breast retaining just enough of its juices to make it palatable dressed plainly with garlic sauce. And yea, ZakeE's pita bread is fresh, warm, and happy to be pulled apart to trap any wayward meats or vegetables (careful, though, the wraps will drip all over you, given the opportunity).
Some of the best choices offered here are listed on the specials board -- although the specials seem to be part of the everyday selection. A vegetarian pizza is a miniature delight -- a soup-plate-size pita with surprising crispiness under a sweltering blanket of feta, tomato, cilantro, onion and red pepper. The four pieces disappear in seconds.
Another fine selection is the chicken and rice special, tossing small pieces of roasted chicken breast with brown rice, sweet peas and spices, served with yogurt sauce and a pita. The dominating spice is cinnamon, and the rice is a bit dry, but that's before we mix in the yogurt sauce. The result is a tasty success.
While most of ZakeE's dishes are predictable interpretations of Middle Eastern classics, a few items will come in as curve balls to traditional fast-food diners. Kebabs, for example, aren't the skewered, meat-and-vegetable wands served at Sizzler. Instead, these kebabs are beef or chicken ground with spices (again, very light), chunked into little bits and grilled. These bits are then tossed with yogurt sauce, lettuce and tomato and stuffed into pita bread. The weird part, though, is that diners can add (at additional charge) such unfamiliar kebabities as cheese or jalapeños. Welcome to America!
And I'm at a loss to explain how cheese "sandwishes" (no typo; the menu board above the counter has been revised by hand to add the "s") made it into this place. No kidding, these are your typical white rolls stuffed with a choice of cheeses (American, Jack or Swiss), with lettuce, tomato and, as options, grilled steak, grilled onions, mushrooms or jalapeños. But don't expect a Philly steak -- this meat comes heavily dusted with cinnamon, an unexpected and, to be honest, unappreciated, extra.
And what would any contemporary Valley fast-food place be without a burrito on its menu? ZakeE's "BIG" burrito is a best seller, no doubt. It's filling food, featuring a 10-inch, burrito-thin pita stuffed with lentils, brown rice, Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and chicken shawarma moistened with yogurt sauce. Is it Mediterranean? No. Does it work? Yes.
There are no games played with the baklava, though, a refreshing finish of thin pastry layers stuffed with nuts and sugar. The chef has a light hand with honey, drizzling just enough to lend sweetness without getting our teeth stuck together.
Just as my companion and I push back from our chairs, Alqardahji appears with strips of aluminum foil and plastic sacks. It's the same as the last time we ordered in huge quantity -- our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, he says. As he knew would be the case. He knows us.