THE PITA PRINCIPLE
For months, I've had Middle Eastern cuisine on my "to do" list. Ten weeks ago, I could have pulled off a simple restaurant review. Now, with Iraq's annexation of Kuwait and thousands of American troops sweating it out in Saudi Arabia, I simply can't. Everything has changed. It takes only two meals to learn how close to home the situation has come.
I start with Camelia Sallam, who owns Mediterranean Gourmet, a tiny eatery located next to Studebaker's in Tempe's Cornerstone Mall. Three-quarters Middle Eastern restaurant and one-quarter hot dog stand, this frozen yogurt-size store does a brisk business with college students, shoppers and moviegoers. Though it doesn't house a large grocery--just a few shelves here and there--the restaurant can sell you products like Calamata olives, spices and feta cheese in bulk.
According to Sallam, who is part Egyptian and part German, the ongoing situation with Saddam Hussein has not affected business. As at many establishments near campus, the start of school takes precedence over any international political situations. Late August signals a happy time, when the air is filled with the sound of ringing registers and the rustle of crisp new bills from returning students. Nor has the situation in the Middle East affected her personally. But then, Sallam insists her restaurant is not strictly Middle Eastern. As if to emphasize this point, a pyramid, the Parthenon and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are all part of Mediterranean Gourmet's logo. I'll grant her the Greek and Egyptian influences, but Italy? Should pizza, mozzarella-on-a-stick and frozen gelato bars count as Italian? Not in my view, at least not the way they're served here. But this is a minor point. A Middle Eastern dish, falafel, is the true specialty of the house. Falafel was created by Christian Egyptians for consumption during Lent. And while Camelia Sallam will be the first to tell you hers is the best this side of the Euphrates, let me be the second.
During a recent lunch, I enjoy a falafel sandwich that is out of this world. Wrapped in a fluffy, warm pita, the chick pea croquettes are flavorful, moist and crumbly. A touch of tahini, a slice of pickle, tomato, shredded lettuce and onion make this sandwich unbeatable. I gobble the whole thing down in minutes--which is pretty unusual for me.
A keufta pita sandwich sampled here is equally appealing. The grilled Middle East meatloaf is juicy, the parsley and other spices well integrated. With a dash of yogurt, some lettuce, tomato and onion, this sandwich is also a winner.
Mediterranean Gourmet's menu is limited, but they do offer a few Middle Eastern starters or side dishes. Gold-hued hummus is made from freshly ground garbanzo beans. Hinting of garlic and lemon, it is wonderful when topped with a little olive oil. The tabouleh here is also superb. Fresh parsley, tomato and scallions dominate this lemony bulgar-wheat salad.
From an ecological standpoint, I'm disappointed to see that all the salads are served in plastic clamshell containers. They're convenient for take-out, I know, but can't we come up with a better solution?
There are only three or four tables in this little shop. Because of the extensive use of the grill, sometimes the atmosphere can become a bit hot and greasy, but don't let that keep you away. The apparition of war hovers nearer at my next stop.
Since my first visit to Mediterranean Restaurant shortly after its opening last winter, I have always appreciated the considerate and gentle manners of its staff. I appreciate them even more once I find out what they've been through lately.
And, while I initially thought the food suffered in comparison to its predecessor (Mediterranean Kitchen, which burned down), it seems to improve each time I return. Like its Cornerstone Mall counterpart, Mediterranean Restaurant cannot afford to rely strictly on homeboy patronage. According to the Arizona State University International Student Office, only 180 foreign students attend the university on resident visas from Middle Eastern countries. Thus, despite its location next to the blue-tiled mosque on Forest Avenue near campus, Mediterranean Restaurant has been forced to build a broad customer base in the greater university and Tempe communities. During a recent visit I am pleased to note that every table in the clean, white room is filled with fans of falafel and hummus.
My dining accomplice and I are among the first people who wander in for lunch today. Everything on the menu looks tempting. We manage to restrain ourselves somewhat, but not much. We start our lunch with hummus with meat and pine nuts and a combination appetizer plate.
Traditional Middle Eastern appetizers are among my favorite foods in the whole universe. I often make a meal of them, but today I need to sample some more substantial dishes as well, so a little restraint is in order.
When the hummus is delivered, we can barely stifle our oohs and ahs. Boy, it looks good. Grilled sirloin bits, crunchy pine nuts and olive oil are pooled in the center of a generous serving of creamy, tahini-rich hummus. Pitas in hand, we immediately dig in. The contrast of textures and flavors is delightful.
We're still busy scooping when the combination appetizer plate arrives. Frankly, if it didn't look so appealing, I might not stop. Warm stuffed grape leaves are lemony and wonderful. Kebbe akras, a deep-fried meat-and-bulgar ball, is surprisingly satisfying. Fried falafel patties, substituted for spinach pie, are subtly spiced, crunchy-brown outside, warm and moist inside. Eggplant dip and hummus are also included on the plate. Both have creamy textures, but are too heavily doused with paprika--a little less of the red stuff would do.
Our entrees arrive, and I'm glad I slowed down a little on the appetizers. The grilled chicken plate features four pieces of charred, yet moist, chicken, a mound of nutmeg-flavored long-grain rice and green, parsley-laden tabouleh.
A combination kebab plate is not quite as successful. Three morsels each of chicken kebob, lamb kebob and keufta kebob are presented on a bed of rice. While the lemon-marinated chicken kebob morsels are tasty, the lamb is tough and mutton-flavored, and the keufta--grilled ground beef and spices--is dried out and overherbed.
By the time lunch is finished, we are too sated for dessert, so of course I have some wrapped to go. Mediterranean Restaurant offers several fresh-baked phyllo dough pastries along the lines of baklava. The two I try use a sweet cheese filling. The simplest of them is a triangular phyllo dough pastry filled with the cheese and soaked in honey. I like it because it's not sickeningly sweet.
The second dessert is more eye-catching. The same white cheese is rolled in orange, shredded phyllo dough, giving it a "hairy" look. Topped with ground pistachios, the result is light, not too sweet, and wonderful.
From the pleasant way we're served, you would never know that Nabil Awwad, manager of Mediterranean Restaurant, is frustrated and worried. If you ask how business is, he'll tell you it's good. Dig a little deeper and you learn the real story. "It's killing us," he says, referring not to a lack of customers but to something much worse. "We know nothing, only that he is stuck there."
"He" is Nabil's brother Basem. "There" is Kuwait.
Basem was in the tiny ill-fated country to attend a wedding--his own. He and his bride, mother and sister were supposed to leave Kuwait the day the Iraqis invaded. They never boarded their plane.
Like his brother Nabil, Basem Awwad is an American citizen. The Palestinian brothers are originally from Jerusalem. Basem's new wife is Palestinian, too. Like many citizens of other Middle Eastern countries, her family resided in oil-rich Kuwait.
"The State Department called and told us he was on the list," says Nabil, with a heavy sigh. "I don't know why they didn't leave. They had their tickets." He pauses, as though searching for answers. "I guess they all wanted to stay together."
You won't see any yellow ribbons tied outside Mediterranean Restaurant. Nabil Awwad has not asked for any publicity concerning his family's detention in Kuwait. The restaurant is still open. There are customers to serve. But Nabil's mind is never far from his brother's situation.
"If only we knew someone in Jordan," he says.
It all makes analyzing falafel seem pretty damn insignificant, doesn't it?
Mediterranean Gourmet, 705 South Rural, Tempe, 894-8575. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday.
Mediterranean Restaurant, 616 South Forest, Tempe, 968-5582. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Falafel was created by Christian Egyptians for consumption during Lent. Mediterranean Gourmet's is the best this side of the Euphrates.
"It's killing us," Nabil Awwad says, referring not to a lack of customers, but to something much worse.
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