Sultans of Shish
I have the funny feeling Mike Tyson knows something I don't. Other than how to land a right cross that'll knock a 230-pound boxer on his ass. See, I've started compiling a little list of the places where I've spotted snapshots of the former world heavyweight champ around town, and Iron Mike's Maori-tattooed mug is popping up in the oddest spots. The pharmacy nearest my apartment. A private club on the west side. And this week, the Russo-Uzbek eatery Restaurant Samarkand, on 19th Avenue, just south of Northern Avenue.
Samarkand co-owner Motik Baybachayez points out the blurred photo of himself, Tyson and Baybachayez's business partner Mira Malayeva, arm-in-arm at their restaurant, which specializes in shish kebabs of all kinds. The picture is behind the teak bar in the back of this modest establishment, and Baybachayez explains that Tyson is a class act who stops by from time to time for a nosh. Well, there you go. I'd just discovered the barely year-old Samarkand for myself, and here I find that the pugnacious pugilist has beaten me to the culinary punch.
Evidently, the champ's got good taste, and not just in earlobes. The food at Samarkand is hearty, palatable and inexpensive. Unlike my review meals at the high-end chophouse Donovan's, which I nearly had to pay for in Krugerrands, dining at Samarkand is a penny pincher's delight. Individual skewers of lamb, beef, chicken and fish run from $2 to $4.50. Huge bowls of Russian soups and salads never rise above $3.50. A nice glass of table wine, $5. For these prices, two people can eat like Michael Moore on a binge for around $50 or less. As Eddie Murphy once said in an entirely different context, "What a bargain! That is a bargain for me."
Though all of Samarkand's kebabs are stomach-worthy, I especially enjoyed the lamb, beef and fish. Samarkand offers three different kinds of lamb skewers: plain lamb, marinated lamb and lamb chops. The marinated lamb is the best, tender and succulent, with a slight twinge of gaminess. The chops also come skewered, three per steel spit, each as tasty as its kebab cousins. As for beef, there are beef kebabs, marinated beef, and a "lola" kebab, ground beef and onions molded over the skewer and grilled. The marinated beef and the lola kebab were my faves, particularly the marinated beef -- essentially, savory chunks of steak.
As for Samarkand's piscatory pleasures, there are two options, "captain fish" and salmon. The "captain fish" is sea bass -- fat, white cubes so delectable and juicy that they force you to sit back in your chair and focus on the carnal delight your taste buds are experiencing. The salmon, too, is quite gratifying, and with a bit of lemon squeezed over it, even more so.
The national dish of Uzbekistan is a rice pilav (plov), made with lamb and beef, but it takes time to prepare, so the owners request that you call a few hours in advance to order it and that you have at least five diners in your party, since they cook up a big batch of the stuff. However, kebabs are normally served sans sides, so for starch, you may have to rely on a plate of freshly baked Uzbek bread, known as lipioshka. This lipioshka is round, like a big bialy almost, with a thick, fluffy outer ring, and a flatbread center sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Lipioshka makes a terrific companion for Samarkand's array of salads and soups. Order the borscht and you receive a huge bowl of that reddish broth chock-full of beets and onions. Add a little sour cream, and you've got a soothing concoction, superb for chilly nights. Other soups include pelmeny, ravioli-like dumplings filled with beef in a clear bouillon. There's also a noodle soup called lagman, and shurpa, a vegetable-beef soup, but these last two I've yet to try.
The salads are simple, fresh and far better than the pitiful, leafy medleys most Americans think of when someone says "salad." It's difficult to do them all justice, but my fab four are the carrot salad, bean salad, mushroom salad, and the funchoza. The funchoza is the most interesting, a tangle of cold Chinese rice noodles with bell peppers and carrots in a dressing of vinegar, sugar, oil, salt and pepper. The carrot salad is sweet and spicy, a mound of that shredded orange root in a bath of vinegar and red pepper. I dare you to try the mushroom salad with chili oil and bell peppers without downing every last morsel. It's also difficult to stop munching on the bean salad, with red beans, onions and dill, though you may have to because Samarkand gives you so much of it.
Samsa and manti are two other Uzbek delicacies you must try while at Samarkand. The samsa are beef-and-onion-filled buns, and the manti are huge dumplings stuffed with a farrago of minced lamb, beef and onion. Pardon me while I slobber at the mere mention of them.
Finish your meal with Samarkand's tea, a blend of black and green teas, prepared with the loose leaves placed in the bottom of the tea pot. Citrusy and full of flavor, I dare say this is the best tea I've ever had, and henceforth, I will always be appalled at the loathsome sight of a tea bag, which produces such an inferior brew by comparison. Samarkand's tea is a perfect complement to its sweets, either a sugar-coated football of dough filled with crushed walnuts, or a cake of crushed walnuts sprinkled with powdered pistachios.
The decor is functional and pleasant: cream-colored walls, red linen tablecloths and chintzy vases filled with pink roses. Two TV sets sometimes blast Russian broadcasts. Or the stereo might be playing a haunting Russian tune. A mezuzah on the door frame, and a painting of Moses parting the Red Sea attest to the Jewish heritage of both owners, who came to Arizona by way of New York, where Baybachayez owned a restaurant and Malayeva worked in a Russian deli. They're in-laws, and were neighbors in the old country, in fabled Samarkand itself, city of mosques, and burial place of the conqueror Tamerlane.
Theirs is a significant contribution to Phoenix's ethnic dining scene, and I urge all of my readers to patronize them, following in the illustrious footsteps of Iron Mike, and your own feisty-but-lovable food writer, Suety Steve.
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