Why have I been skipping around the office, of late, humming Iron Butterfly's heavy metal classic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" as I go? Have I been doing peyote again? Swallowed a bag of 'shrooms, followed by a tab or three of X? Yahweh, no. My drug of choice is made evident by the protuberance of my paunch, and my ecstasy is induced by caloric consumption, not by downing disco biscuits. I sing Iron Butterfly's slurred corruption of the phrase "In the garden of Eden," because I have found myself a new Eden, located up around Tatum and Thunderbird, in a small shopping center shared by a Henry's Farmers Market: a tiny patch of paradise named Eden's Grill Inn, to be exact.
Boy, did I need this lil' taste of heaven after last week's disastrous outing to McGrath's Fish House, over which I'm still smarting. It never ceases to amaze me how so much money and so many cooks can labor to produce such a dud as McGrath's, when a small, ethnic eatery can so easily outdo it, taste-wise. In a way, it's like comparing pears and plums, and in a way, it's not. The bottom line is that a family-run enterprise like Eden's Grill Inn consistently produces worthwhile dining experiences on a budget that would starve a chain. Small is indeed beautiful in the culinary world. And that's why the chow you shovel into your gob at a chef-owned bistro or a mom-and-pop spot will almost always outdo the eats you ingest at corporate grub Goliaths.
In business for about two and a half years now, this Eden for Middle Eastern cuisine has been built by Marcus and Shalem Narsa, Assyrian Christians originally from Iraq, but more recently from Chicago, where they owned a bakery and restaurant for some 25 years. Not too long ago, Marcus moved the family to Phoenix, where the climate reminds him of his home country. And since he is blessed, in Shalem, with a wife who is a master cook, starting a restaurant utilizing several generations of family recipes was a no-brainer. Marcus runs the front of the house, while Shalem busies herself in the kitchen, and the family affair is completed with the aid of the Narsas' grown daughter and son.
Eden's Grill Inn
13843 North Tatum Boulevard (Thunderbird Road and Tatum)
Baba ghanouj: $5.50
Chicken kebab: $11.95
Lamb kebab: $15.95
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Blink twice and you might overlook Eden's modest storefront. Inside, the place boasts little more than a dozen tables outfitted in maroon cloths. Clean and cozy, with orangish walls, framed prints and photos, and a small trompe l'oeil mural next to the door, the atmosphere is generally provided by Marcus himself, doting over his customers in his kindly, avuncular manner. A little Middle Eastern music flows from the stereo. Otherwise, that's it for ambiance. And that's about all you need with edibles as superb as Eden provides.
Let's begin with Eden's magnificently aromatic rice. Now if Eve had neglected that apple and instead prepared rice like this for her hapless mate, Adam might be lounging au naturel in paradise to this day. The Narsas' basmati is made with eight different spices, including saffron and cinnamon, and further mixed with golden raisins and sliced Marcona almonds. This rice accompanies every meal, and is nearly a meal in itself. Rare indeed is the diner who does not have to ask for a doggie bag, and let me tell you, that doggie bag is better than a bag of potpourri in your car or refrigerator. I suspect, though no one's told me, that my breath is unusually fragrant after supping on a plate of that glorious rice.
The rice is often topped with grilled tomato, green pepper, and onion, or with a skewer of same, depending on which plate you order. Carnivores can't go wrong here, so choose your meat as you will. The chicken kebabs are plump and succulent, tinged gold from the saffron, and browned by the grill. And the lamb kebabs are flecked with pepper, unusually soft, with that rich lamb flavor to which I'm addicted. The beef kebab is similarly tender, not overdone. But I prefer the ground beef kebab -- hamburger mixed with an assortment of spices before being wrapped around the shish and grilled. At other Middle Eastern places in town, this variation on the kubideh kebab is a lot plainer with just parsley and onion, but at Eden's, the taste is far more complex and rewarding.
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On Fridays and Saturdays, the Narsas offer a lamb shank special wherein that young sheep's foreleg is stewed all day long in a tomato-based sauce. Say a cross word to that shank and the tendons will simply slide off the bone, that's how tender it is. Gnawing on the bone is worth your while too, as the stray bits of muscle and cartilage are almost as tasty as the marrow from an osso buco. I also like pouring that tomatoey gravy over the rice and mushing it all together with my fork for added savoriness.
Veg-heads will be pleased with the falafel, made fresh as you order it. Most falafel you get elsewhere is dry and overcooked. But Eden's falafel has a crispy exterior, with a moist, spicy interior. I've been known to gobble a few falafel in my day. Still, this has got to be the best I've ever had, hands down. Terribly scrumptious, as was the baba ghanouj, which was almost fluffy and rich with the taste of pur&eacuate;ed eggplant. Only the thin, limp grape leaves (dolmeh) and the oddly bland hummus disappointed me. Maybe it was an off night when I had those. The tabbouleh and the minty cucumber-yogurt dip were exceptional, however. So I'm not complaining too loudly here.
The Narsas are bakers from way back, meaning you get your money's worth on the dessert tip. They make one of the better pistachio-chocolate chip cannoli I've enjoyed locally, and ditto their baklava, which was gooey with honey on the bottom, flaky on the crown, with a soft middle of crushed walnuts and pistachios. Also, the multi-layered caramel cake, with its hint of citrus, drizzled over with a melon syrup, was swoon-worthy, and more than enough for two people to share.
There may be cheaper Middle Eastern places to eat at in the Valley, but few match the delights of dining in Eden. So the next time someone asks me for a great place to get kebabbed, I'll just croon, "In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby . . ."