Cafe Reviews

A Tale of Two Subway-Style Mediterranean Joints in Tempe

All over the country, healthy eating is on the rise. And in the realm of fast-casual dining, that means replacing the iceberg lettuce and "lite" mayonnaise with roasted vegetables and well-seasoned sauces served up fast, fresh, and with a nod to all kinds of diets — from vegan to gluten-free.

This year, two very good Mediterranean-style spots have opened in Tempe, luring diners with healthful, homemade creations packed into pitas, bowls, and plates, served Subway-style, and priced to please.

Not quite sure about that eggplant hummus or spicy baba ganoush? Ask for a taste beforehand, then enjoy what comes next. You'll still have time to spare.

Hummus Xpress

Even with the Valley's multitude of Mediterranean restaurants, there is no place quite like Hummus Xpress, with its sautéed broccoli seasoned with the wild thyme called za'atar, at least five kinds of creamy hummus, and a formidable version of shug (a Yemeni hot sauce made with fresh green chiles, garlic, coriander, cardamom, and other spices) that lights up whatever it touches.

Owned by chef Ahmad (Eddie) Hantas, who grew up in Beirut, Hummus Xpress opened in January of this year, just after Hantas graduated from culinary school and six years after he closed his first Tempe restaurant, a pizzeria and Mediterranean joint called Eddie's Bistro that lasted five years.

"I saw that people were starting to eat healthier," Hantas says. "I wanted my restaurant to be original and offer things most people overlook in other Mediterranean restaurants."

A kind of chef-driven street food stand by way of Lebanon, Hummus Xpress offers a colorful, rotating array of homemade salads and hummus, boldly flavored sauces, hot vegetables, fresh toppings, and slow-cooked meats that can be packed as-you-please into pitas, bowls, or plates — all for under a 10-spot. You can create your own dish, but given Hantas' talent at combining flavors, letting him take the reins for a more adventuresome meal pretty much goes without saying.

You might receive a top-notch pita (from Phoenix's Baiz Market) loaded with braised beef shoulder seasoned with coriander, garlic, and bay leaves. With it might be lightly sweet fried eggplant, lentils brightened with tangy and lemony sumac, and a hot pink beet hummus with a decidedly mild, earthy twist. Then there's the very good Lebanese-style chicken — marinated for four days in tomato paste, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and garlic — placed, perhaps, on a plate with braised kale kissed in lemon and garlic, cucumbers and tomatoes, feta cheese, and a dollop of lively tzatziki.

And Hantas isn't above adding a little Southwest flair to his superb falafels. Quite possibly some of the best in the Valley, their thin and crunchy coatings give way to a creamy filling of ground fava beans seasoned with cardamom and Mexican chili powder. They can be paired with moist Lebanese-style tabouli (made with cilantro, not parsley, Hantas says, so as to be easier on the palate), spicy shug, or a smoky chipotle hummus for a kind of Lebanese snack run through a Mexican kitchen.

The idea behind Hummus Xpress is speedy convenience, but you hardly could be blamed for lingering in the bright little dining room enjoy decadent homemade baklava or green tea spiked with quince, the pome fruit related to apples and pears.

Tzikii Pita Grill

Tzikii Pita Grill is a Mediterranean restaurant with an Egyptian slant, heavy on the rice, vegetables, and lentils, and using family recipes as closely guarded as your favorite aunt's real age.

It's owned by Egyptian-born Mino Henes, Mohsen Tonsy, and Mo Khalek, whose grandmother reportedly is more or less the Famous Amos of Cairo. Khalek's homemade creations grace many of the wallet-friendly menu's pitas, bowls, plates, dips, and salads. The more Greek-minded dishes come from Henes, who's seen fit to add some heat to his very creamy and smoky baba ganoush, making it one of the restaurant's most popular items.

Tzikii might be the only place in the Valley serving koshari, the Egyptian street food made from rice, lentils, garbanzo beans, and pasta coated in a spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with fried onions. A kind of Italian dish by way of Egypt, the hearty vegan- and vegetarian-friendly snack features scratch-made tomato vinaigrette accented with garlic, vinegar, and a bit of sugar for a tangy and spicy kick.

The best thing on the menu is the chicken shawarma, chunks of well-grilled meat with a subtly scrumptious seasoning Khalek says comes from his grandmother's recipe requiring nine different ingredients — none of which he will tell me. Like another good dish, beef shawarma braised and marinated in citrus sauce, it's best had with lentil rice, a nice salad, and a pita to dip into Henes' spicy cilantro jalapeño hummus washed down between gulps of cucumber lemonade.

You could also make do with a few of Tzikii's tameyas, Egypt's version of the falafel. Darker and flatter with a thicker, crunchier coat than its Middle Eastern cousin, the fried patties of seasoned fava beans can be packed street-food-style into a pita with veggies and a generous amount of tzatziki that, thanks to a bit of tahini, takes on a deeper flavor than those you may have had elsewhere.

And Khalek's family affair doesn't stop at the main dishes. There is his grandmother's dessert Fruit Bel Creama, a soft and sweet strawberry-filled jelly with a pour-over of scratch-made cream pierced with a sugar cookie. And sometimes there's excellent konafa, a classic Egyptian dessert made of thin pastry strands, nuts, and syrup.

Despite its tiny kitchen, Khalek says Tzikii will be getting an oven soon, an acquisition that means his mother, just as she did before their doors opened in late March, will be paying another visit from Cairo. This time, she'll bring along family recipes for slow-roasted and baked Egyptian dishes Khalek says will be a kind of "round two" for his guests to discover.