ZakeE's chef-owner Sal Alqardahji is pleased that I'm making a complete pig of myself at lunch. I suppose there aren't that many customers who order two appetizers, three or four entrees, salads and dessert for a noon repast, but my dining companion and I are really hungry, I tell him, not without some embarrassment.
Beyond being a restaurant owner's dream, my eating habits are healthy, he assures me. Lunch should be the main meal of the day. Too many people pack it in at dinner, he explains, then lie around and let the calories turn to mush. If my companion and I want to eat ourselves into a coma, it's better -- even commendable -- that we do it long before bedtime.
Of course, he's assuming that this will be our only meal of the day.
This forgiving way of thinking is just one of the reasons I like Alqardahji, who, with his brother, Lawrence, has operated ZakeE for the past year. His personal approach, as much as the quality of his cooking, is likely what's made ZakeE into such a popular neighborhood joint for East Valley folks craving a quick Mediterranean meal. He knows most customers by name, it seems, as well as their favorite foods, where they work, and even their lucky numbers. My guess is if a guest has been in the store even once, he or she is treated like a regular.
A near twin to Sean Connery in appearance and voice, Alqardahji is the tall, goateed man you'll see behind the counter, working the phones, clearing the tables, calling us à la David Letterman's announcer to pick up our meals, and stepping in to help Lawrence chop, grill, wrap and place food on plastic trays. He's the one ringing up our checks, and beaming when our ticket comes up with a "lucky" number ("Oh, you're order number 21, my favorite number. That's good. It means you're going to have a great day."). Another guest receives a register total of $6.66, which Alqardahji promptly re-rings as $6.65.
In a no-frills age of shouting orders into plastic squawk boxes at drive-throughs, and being met with that "God, I wish I was anywhere but here" gaze from surly counter order takers, Alqardahji is a breath of fresh air.
Plunked in the middle of yet another nondescript strip mall on the Chandler/Tempe border, ZakeE doesn't inspire much Middle Eastern charm in its decor. The store is the typical glass-fronted box, starkly dressed with mint-green concrete floors under tan walls sporting an art collection of sphinx, ocean landscape and desert scenery. Drinks are self-serve, and we toss our rubbish when we're done. I'm not expecting dancing girls, but had I walked in without already knowing what type of food to expect, I'd never have guessed I'd be getting good quality falafels, shawarma or dolmas instead of a greasy cheeseburger.
ZakeE means "very delicious" in Arabic, Alqardahji tells me. Overall, I've got to agree (certainly the neighborhood's Middle Eastern contingent does; they're out in force every time I visit here). While some of the food here isn't the knock-your-socks-off Middle Eastern fare to be found at our larger Valley restaurants, it is all homemade, and at around six bucks for an entree, it fills my belly just fine.
Pretty much anything in this world containing feta is a winner, and the salty cheese plays a starring role in ZakeE's Greek salad (available with or without marinated chicken). It's a good thing I can't get enough of its pickled flavor, tossed in huge handfuls with the typical blend of crunchy romaine, tomato cucumber, red onion slices and zesty kalamata olives. The "special" dressing served atop is another standout, a simple red wine vinaigrette skyrocketed with obscene amounts of fresh sliced garlic. Eat enough of this potent dressing for a workday lunch, and you'll find out who your real friends are back at the office.
Much less aggressive is the tabbouleh, a pleasant little chop of bulgur (cracked wheat) mixed with chopped tomatoes, green onions, parsley and ground mint. The cold, emerald green dice comes coated in olive oil and lemon juice, to be tucked into accompanying warm pita bread. Tip: Unless you're a huge tabbouleh fan, get the half-order along with another dish for greater variety in flavor.
The Middle East is famous for its soothing dips, and ZakeE serves them with creamy finesse. If baby food were this good, parents wouldn't have to play silly airplane games to get junior to open his hangar. On days I'm too tired to chew, hummus is my best friend, with its compliant mash of garbanzo beans, lemon juice, garlic olive oil and tahini (sesame-seed paste) spread in a pita. And baba ghanouj brings a similar purée, substituting roasted, smoked eggplant for the garbanzo beans. I've had better yogurt cucumber dip, though -- the version served here is too thin and soupy for my taste, with not enough mint to spark the sleepy sauce.
I'm more than thrilled with the consistency of ZakeE's lentil soup. I covet my bowl full (well, Styrofoam container, actually) of split legumes, mashed to a sultry silkiness, served perfectly hot and subtly dusted with cumin. Even my companion, who thinks he dislikes vegetables, is spooning greedily -- finally, he admits, he can understand why many countries around the world substitute lentils for meat. I'm too pleased to see his enjoyment of a new food to explain the reality of the food exchange.
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.
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.
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