Sinbad, 1731 West Baseline, Mesa, 730-9964. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 9p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
The Middle East and Mesa have a surprising amount in common. Geographically, the two areas share the same sort of stark desert landscape. Politically, each region's government officials--whether ayatollahs or legislators--share beliefs in the virtues of school prayer and a well-armed citizenry. And, gastronomically, believe it or not, their inhabitants seem to share a love of the same kind of food.
Not too many years ago, you stood about the same chance of finding any kind of ethnic cuisine in the East Valley as you did of tracking down the Lost Dutchman mine. Ethnic flair in Mesa meant toasting your white bread.
During the '90s, however, the dining scene has been rapidly changing. Now, not one, but two new Middle Eastern restaurants have opened their doors in the state's third-largest city. Both Sinbad and Cleopatra's are worthy destinations, serving cheap, hearty and authentic eats.
Operating out of a strip-mall storefront, Sinbad isn't much more visually impressive on the inside than it is on the outside. You won't see artifacts from the homeland. You will see about a dozen tables, each adorned with a white tablecloth under a glass top. You'll see a few mirrors on the wall and a lonely plant in the middle of the floor. Only the piped-in, finger-snapping Arabic music gives you an inkling as to the nationality of the food that will be coming out of the kitchen.
Sinbad, I'm told, is run by someone who used to work at Cafe Istanbul, one of the best Middle Eastern places in town. Obviously, he's picked up an education.
The fare has a Lebanese tilt, but draws from all over the region. Making your way through the substantial appetizer list is a good way to get acquainted with the choices, without threatening your credit-card limits. There are more than a dozen offerings, most of them comfortably priced at $3 or less.
Lubieh bizzeyt is one of my favorites, green beans stewed with tomatoes and plentiful chunks of garlic, served cold. Moujaddara is another offbeat starter, a mortared mound of mashed lentils and rice. Folks with smaller appetites might be tempted to call either one a meal, especially if they make their way through the pita bread basket at the same time.
Sinbad does a more than competent job crafting the usual starter suspects. Hummus (mashed chick peas) and baba ghanouj (pureed charbroiled eggplant seasoned with garlic, lemon and sesame-seed paste) hit the right taste buttons. Even better is the delightful tabbouleh, chopped parsley flecked with cracked wheat and scallions, coated with olive oil and punched up with lots of fresh, breath-tingling mint.
I usually avoid stuffed grape leaves, another appetizer fixture, because they frequently turn up as dried-out pellets. Not here, though. These critters are wonderfully moist specimens, zipped up with a splash of lemon. But I was put off by the spinach and cheese pie, done in by a jaw-breakingly chewy phyllo-dough wrap.
Like Americans, Middle Easterners are fond of deep-fried munchies. Only theirs seem to be a lot more interesting than ours. Instead of nibbling on battered zucchini strips or mozzarella sticks, for example, they prefer kibbeh akrass. It's ground lamb blended with cracked wheat and pine nuts, molded into a ball and fried. Middle Easterners have come up with an improvement on the ranch dressing dip, as well. Dunk your kibbeh into lebni, a creamy Lebanese yogurt jazzed up with mint and olive oil.
Falafel is a Middle Eastern sandwich staple, and it can be a snooze. But Sinbad's model is terrific--richly flavored with spices enlivening the deep-fried chick-pea and fava-bean balls. And if you've got a sense of adventure, try a sandwich of ma'anek, a Lebanese sausage that seems to be spiked with every spice in the spice rack. (Like all Middle Eastern food, it's highly seasoned, but not spicy hot.) The scent of cloves is particularly noticeable.
Mesans should find almost no main dish too exotic for their tastes. The one exception: kibbeh nayeh, raw ground lamb mixed with olive oil, spices and cracked wheat. Otherwise, though, Middle Easterners share our love of grilled meats.
The best way to sample them is to order the kebab combo, massive amounts of skewered chunks of lamb, kafta (ground lamb strongly seasoned with onions and parsley) and chicken breast. The meats are tender and fragrant, and authentically teamed with rice, broiled tomato and raw onion. At $7.95, the combo is the most expensive item here, but there's no shortage of value.
Sinbad is also one of the few places in the Valley to offer shawarma, a luscious Lebanese specialty of rotisserie-spun beef that hooked me when I lived in the Middle East. Sinbad's version isn't as good as those from my past. It isn't quite as good as Cafe Istanbul's, either. But it's still thoroughly enjoyable, and a vast improvement on that pale imitation, the gyro sandwich.
Anyone who has spent time in the region knows that Middle Easterners like their desserts sweet and drenched with rose water. Sinbad's are no exception. The desserts it offers--three types of homemade baklava and a honey pudding topped with ground pistachios--can put the unwary into sugar and rose-water shock.
Native drinks pack the same kind of wallop. If you're curious, try jallab, a sweet, rose-water-flavored raisin drink, topped with floating pine nuts. I suspect that jallab probably won't be turning up anytime soon at the CircleK beverage counter. On the other hand, the strong, aromatic Turkish coffee here is simply outstanding, as good as I've had in the Valley.
Unpretentious and reliable, Sinbad has everything it takes to become your budget-friendly neighborhood ethnic hangout.
Cleopatra's, 456 West Main, Mesa, 962-7914. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8p.m.
Like Sinbad, Cleopatra's also operates out of a strip-mall storefront. Inside, though, it's a bit spiffier than the competition: The tables are adorned with pink tablecloths (in serious need of ironing) topped with white paper place mats; small vases are filled with silk flowers; framed Egyptian prints line the walls; and Oriental carpets are set down where the belly dancer performs.
Yes, on Friday and Saturday nights Cleopatra's turns belly dancing loose on Mesa. I haven't seen shaking like this since my wife had malaria, and I'm not sure Mesa is ready for it. After the performer finished her set, she wiggled over to the occupied tables, where untrained locals neglected to show their appreciation with anything except smiles. Then she shimmied over our way, where our educated group of belly-dancing scholars knowledgeably jammed greenbacks into various parts of her outfit. "Thank God somebody here knows what to do," she exclaimed, as her elastic waistband snapped around our dollar bills.
Somebody also seems to know what he's doing in the kitchen. The Egyptian proprietor seems to be hedging his bets somewhat, unsure whether Mesans will venture into a place serving unfamiliar ethnic fare. So he's put pizza, lamb chops, shrimp scampi and chopped sirloin on the menu. But the purely Middle Eastern dishes are good enough to sustain the restaurant on their own.
The best way to sample almost everything in the cook's arsenal is to go for the Mediterranean Feast, carried to the table on an oversize metal tray. The menu says it should satisfy two or three people. Yes, it should--for several days. Unless your group plays defensive-line positions for the Dallas Cowboys, the Mediterranean Feast should handle four appetites.
The meal begins with an assortment of appetizers. Baba ghanouj is exceptional, loaded with a strong, roasted eggplant flavor. Stuffed grape leaves are also well-fashioned, armed with a lemony zing. Hummus and tabbouleh are authentically crafted, as is the spinach pie we ordered à la carte.
The foul moudammas, however, wasn't so authentic. It's an Egyptian specialty made with fava beans dressed with garlic and lemon. But Cleopatra's substituted another variety of bean. No great harm, but it made me wary about corner-cutting elsewhere.
Fortunately, if there was more corner-cutting, I couldn't detect it. All the Middle Eastern entrees found their way to our pleasure zones.
The Mediterranean Feast gives you an ample taste of four different grilled kebabs, all of them first-rate. Lamb kebab is tender and juicy; marinated beef kebab is lean and beefy; chicken kebab is moist and tasty; and the kafta kebab is vigorously seasoned and fragrant. Two other nice touches are the skewers of grilled tomatoes, peppers and onions, and slabs of gyro meat that weren't advertised on the menu, but came along for the ride anyway. All together, we counted 14 skewers, plus the gyro.
One part of the platter that could use a bit of work, however, is the rice. It's dull, about the only thing here that doesn't have enough zest.
Chicken shawarma is one of the few menu items that doesn't show up on the Mediterranean Feast. Don't overlook it. The grilled, marinated white-meat chicken comes moistened in a beguiling yogurt sauce. It's accompanied by an excellent salad, too, stocked with olives, cucumbers and feta.
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After you've watched the floor show and polished off dinner, linger with sticky homemade baklava and scented Turkish coffee. That way, for at least a few more minutes, you can plausibly sustain the illusion that you can't possibly be in Mesa.