Kebab's Big Boy

Apadana Shish Kabab, 2515 North Scottsdale Road (Wilshire Plaza), Scottsdale, 945-5900. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

In the summer of 1977, my teaching contract in Iran was coming to an end. A year earlier, I'd signed a contract extension, and now I was wondering if I should do it again.

The money was tempting--a single guy in a Third World country earning a thousand dollars a month could live like a maharajah. I'd learned the language and made lots of friends. I'd done some fabulous traveling, visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the great mosque in Isfahan and the ancient capital of Persepolis, conquered by Alexander the Great. And from my Caspian Sea station, I had access to the world's best caviar, at black-market prices.

The job, however, wasn't terribly fulfilling--working at an Iranian military base. My mission: teaching basic "Hello, how are you?" English to fresh-from-the-village naval recruits, to see if any had an aptitude for the language. If one did, he'd be sent to an Air Force base in Texas. There, he'd learn how to operate some of the billion-dollar weaponry the American government was selling to our friend the Shah, to combat Soviet influence in the region.

Maybe one in ten thousand students flashed even the barest hint of linguistic talent. That's because most of the recruits were illiterate in their own language. (They'd joined the Navy to avoid going to school.) During lab hour, the students listened to and repeated English dialogues on cassettes. The tapes were made in Texas, at the prestigious Defense Language Institute.

Unfortunately, our military geniuses used native Texas drawlers to record the conversations. One day a student asked me, "Mister, what mean 'high heels'?" I explained the concept to him, and he nodded doubtfully. Then he brought over his tape for me to listen to:

Speaker One: Ah lee-ive in Texas.
Speaker Two: In Texas, theah are mountains and high heels.
It was scary to think that these were the forces protecting American strategic interests. And there were other signs that the Iranian military wasn't in serious fighting trim. For one thing, the navy had nine ships and 32 admirals. (The Shah had many relatives who needed jobs.) Even to my untrained military mind, this seemed a command blunder. Meanwhile, the bus that took us to our jobs carried two very young, machine-gun-toting soldiers, to discourage terrorist attack. My biggest fear, though, was that in case of an actual attack, they'd forget which way to point their weapons.

With the anti-Shah sentiment growing, I decided that even a thousand dollars a month and cheap caviar wasn't enough to keep me in Iran. My decision was clinched when a passerby stopped me in the street and shouted, "American donkey, go home." My colleagues who decided otherwise spent the next year dodging bullets.

My years in Iran also provided plenty of gastronomic adventure. Persian food is unlike other Middle Eastern cuisines: complexly flavored, highly seasoned but never spicy hot, and built around mounds of perfumed basmati rice. There are only a handful of places in the Valley where you can get it.

One of them is Apadana, a storefront restaurant in a south Scottsdale strip mall, run by refugees from the Khomeini regime. In Iran, you'll find this kind of place--called a chelo kebabi (it's a simple joint serving rice and meat)--on every street. They offer basic native fare, at very basic prices.

Newly remodeled, Apadana doesn't look much like a Persian restaurant. For some reason, the proprietor has played down the ethnic dimensions. The place has a more south-of-the-border style: Mexican-tile floor, colorful tablecloths, wooden beams and Southwestern accents on the booths. Only a couple of tourist-board posters of Persepolis give you an inkling of what kind of food is coming out of the kitchen.

Most of it is tasty and authentic. Iranians haven't embraced the concept of appetizers, and neither has Apadana. Almost all the ones listed here are actually main-dish accompaniments. One genuine article, however, is a dip the all-English-language menu calls Eggplant Delight. It's fried eggplant, fragrantly blended with lentils, mint and kashk, a tangy cream that gives this dish its distinctive bite. Scoop it up with pita.

The menu offers two standard types of Iranian dishes, kebabs and stews. The former features a variety of marinated, skewered and grilled meats--beef, lamb, chicken--teamed with a steaming pile of saffron-accented basmati rice. Chelo kebab barg brings flattened slices of exceptionally tender filet mignon. For $9.99, you'll get a week's worth of animal protein. The chelo kebab koobideh is a heady combination of ground beef and lamb, infused with a spice rack of seasonings. Can't make up your mind? Try the barg-koobideh combo platter. It's called sultani--fit for a sultan--and it is.

Lamb kebab is also a good choice, the meat strong-flavored and gristle-free. The kebab fashioned from boneless chunks of chicken breast marinated in lemon juice, herbs and onion is beautifully moist and skillfully grilled with an appealing crisp edge.

The stews offer less familiar, more exotic flavors. Ghormeh sabzi pairs beef and veggies in a sharp sauce zipped up with dried lime. Ghemeh combines yellow split peas, beef and potatoes. My favorite is ghemeh bademjan, beef and eggplant touched with saffron in a rich tomato sauce. The stews are served in a bowl, then spooned over a plate of rice.

Occasionally, the kitchen prepares polo, an all-in-one rice dish. If baghali polo is available, grab it. It's lamb shank and lima beans mixed into dill-flecked rice, a terrific combination of flavors.

For me, no Iranian dinner is complete without tah dig. It means "bottom of the pot," and it refers to the oily, crunchy rice scraped off the bottom of the rice pot. It's traditionally topped with one of the stews, and it's absolutely addicting. I put on 25 pounds while I was in Iran, and tah dig was responsible for about 24 of them.

Mast o khiar is a lighter side dish: yogurt mixed with chopped cucumber and mint. Beginners may want to skip the torshi, strong, pungent pickled vegetables.

Wash down your meal with doogh, a salty yogurt drink that Apadana should be making itself, rather than importing in bottles from Los Angeles. Then, finish up with samovar-brewed Iranian tea and genuine Persian ice cream, highlighted with pistachios and a pinch of saffron.

Americans have been at odds with Iran ever since the ayatollahs started setting policy. Fortunately, at Apadana, you'll find Iranian cuisine much easier to swallow.

Sabuddy, 825 West University, Tempe, 894-8387. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I asked the affable Israeli proprietor to tell me what "sabuddy" meant. "It's an Asian greeting," he explained. To demonstrate, he clasped his hands in front of him, monklike, bowed slightly and murmured, "Sabuddy."

Although the connection between the restaurant's name and its Middle Eastern fare seems a bit tenuous, there's nothing tenuous about what comes out of this kitchen. Most of the dishes are designed to come the way Tempe's college crowd wants them: cheap and hearty.

There's not much in the way of atmosphere in this freestanding building, which used to house a hot dog/hamburger joint. The radio is tuned to the classical-music station, and the television in the corner blares whatever the customers want to watch. Otherwise, you can stare at University Drive traffic whizzing by, or your fellow diners.

Or you can stare at your food. Most folks probably haven't seen matbuha before, a cold Moroccan tomato salad mixed with green peppers. Unless you're a native Moroccan, don't expect to be dazzled--it's very bland.

The Greek eggplant salad is a more interesting way to glide into dinner. It's pureed eggplant perked up with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. Two other pre-entree alternatives--tahini, a ground sesame paste, and tabbouleh, a blend of parsley and cracked wheat--are routine.

The soups, however, aren't. Lentil soup, thickened with potatoes, will stick to your ribs. Even better, though, is the white bean and tomato broth, which tastes like someone spent time standing over the pot, getting it just right.

The menu offers only six main-dish options. The best one is the torpedo-shaped kebab. Put together with ground beef and a fistful of Middle Eastern seasonings, it's skewered and grilled, and arrives plump and amazingly juicy. It's particularly good slathered with tahini and stuffed into a pita sandwich.

Sabuddy takes liberties with shishlik, which is traditionally lamb. Here, however, the kitchen uses white-meat turkey. Still, I have no complaints with the tasty result. Like the kebab, you can get it as a platter with rice, or fashioned into a sandwich.

I've never heard of "Jerusalem" meatballs before I came here. But if Sabuddy's Jerusalem meatballs are any guide, I'll be on the lookout for them. You get two big ones, each the size of a large tangerine, finely ground and covered with a robust tomato sauce. Served over rice, they make for a tasty, substantial dish.

When you think of Middle Eastern dishes, schnitzel isn't likely to spring to mind. For some reason, though, Sabuddy makes a chicken version. It's a thin piece of breast, lightly breaded and fried, teamed with rice and cabbage. It's tasty enough, but I'm not sure why anyone would come here to order it. I also don't know why the chicken-and-eggplant platter is so dull. Surely the kitchen could find some way to liven it up.

Sabuddy doesn't aspire to fine Middle Eastern dining. On the other hand, sometimes reliable ethnic fare, friendly surroundings and a menu that tops out at $6.95 can be aspiration enough.

Apadana Shish Kabab:
Eggplant delight
Ghemeh bademjan
Persian ice cream

White bean soup
Kebab sandwich
Jerusalem meatballs


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