Just beyond the gray brick student housing mega-complexes on Apache Boulevard in Tempe, past the late-night pizzerias and burrito drive-thrus, the college haunts give way to a handful of restaurants advertising flame-grilled kebabs, spitfire shawarma, and other staples of Middle Eastern cooking. Apache has been quietly cultivating something of a Middle Eastern restaurant scene in recent years, which has helped turn south Tempe into a serious dining destination. "Middle Eastern," of course, is a blanket label used to describe any number of regional cuisines. But it's a starting point to deciphering the sprawling menu at Golden Restaurant and Bakery in Tempe, a squat shoebox of a restaurant situated at the east end of Apache.
The restaurant, which has been open for about two years, has a menu that wanders all over the map. You'll find Lebanese breakfast staples, Palestinian desserts, and perhaps most surprisingly, Philadelphia fast food. But at its heart, the menu is steeped in the traditions and flavors of Levantine cooking, a rich culinary heritage found across Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Owner and head chef Mustafa Hasan, Palestinian by birth, has put together a menu that is in turn traditional and irreverent. You'll find top-notch mezzes, including classic small plate dips and salads like homemade hummus and baba ganoush. And you'll also find curious outliers, including a Philly cheesesteak made on the restaurant's signature flatbread.
It should be noted that Golden Restaurant and Bakery is first and foremost a flatbread joint. There are more than 30 flatbreads on the menu, all of which are round and cut into slices like pizza. But unlike your average pizza, the dough is rolled out to a thin, nearly papery consistency. They come in various cheesy, sweet, nutty, spicy, and savory configurations, and at less than $4 a pop, it can be hard to resist stopping at just one.
A good place to start is with manakeesh za'atar, a breakfast staple in Lebanon and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. The dough is brushed with olive oil and dusted with a fragrant thyme and sesame seed spice blend. On a recent visit, the thin slices were buttery, deeply aromatic, and almost ethereal in their lightness.
Lahem b'ajeen, which might be the most popular flatbread on the menu, features a baked-in layer of lightly seasoned minced meat. The ground beef blend, cooked in a fragrant bath of stewed tomatoes, onion, garlic, and bell pepper, is somewhat reminiscent of a homemade Bolognese sauce — but with hints of cinnamon and cumin thrown in. It's a rustic, light-as-air pie that you can easily devour as a snack or as the prelude to your meal.
Beyond flatbreads, the menu features small plate offerings of mezze, including hummus, baba ganoush, and ful. All small plates are served with a generous pile of thick, puffy, warm-from-the-oven pita bread. The hummus and baba ganoush were both excellent on a recent dinner visit. The hummus in particular, dusted with herbs and glistening with a luxurious swirl of olive oil, offered a lovely hit of garlic and sesame. The ful also was especially good. The porridge of fava and garbanzo beans arrived swimming in a pool of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. The bright, lemony notes, balanced by the nutty mash, were hard to resist.
Then there's labani (often spelled labneh), a thickened yogurt cheese available as a topping on several flatbreads but so good that you might as well order a whole bowl of it. The cheese, topped with mint and olive oil, tastes halfway between a smooth cream cheese and a deeply rich sour cream. It pairs nicely with the falafel, which is made from scratch using a house blend of spices. On a recent visit, the crunchy nuggets were clean and dry, despite just having been plunged into a deep fryer. Crack apart a piece and you'll catch faint notes of parsley and garlic, which linger subtly on the palate.
If the falafel plate is not quite hearty enough for you, then try feasting on the house jumbo falafel sandwich. The mammoth wrap is stuffed with crunchy falafel, deep-fried cauliflower, slivers of pickles, and hardboiled eggs, all pasted together with a tangy tahini sauce. The sandwich looks like a deli experiment, as though all the leftover toppings of the day were haphazardly rolled onto a spongy sheet of pita bread. But it works surprisingly well. Every bite delivers hints of lemon and sesame, rounded out with nutty, crackling bits of falafel.
It's also worth exploring the restaurant's selection of small meat plates, such as kabda, a traditional North African lamb liver dish. The hunks of liver are stewed in a bouquet of tomato, onion, and cilantro, which help tone down the mineral richness of the meat. But if you're not already a fan of offal, even the skillful preparation demonstrated here will not change that. A better option is mugalgal, a dish featuring diced, cubed beef slow-cooked in a zesty tomato-cilantro relish. Pile the juicy nubs of meat onto a pillowy sleeve of pita bread for an improvised taco that is irresistibly savory.
You should be warned that it may be impossible to leave Golden Restaurant and Bakery without sampling one (or several) of the desserts tucked behind the bakery display case. The restaurant's Muhallabia milk pudding has earned a steady following, and for good reason. The milky pudding, made with rose water and topped with finely chopped pistachios, is deliciously silky, sweet, and fragrant.
But if there's a better way to finish your meal, it's with a slice of kenafa. The dessert, a classic Palestinian treat, is sometimes called the cheesecake, or the cheese Danish, of the Middle East. Both comparisons, however, fail to capture the perfumed sweetness and unique texture of the dessert. Built on a base of sweet, creamy white cheese, it's topped with fine, thread-like shreds of cooked semolina dough, which are tinted orange with food coloring. It comes with a side of aromatic sugar syrup, which you pour over the cheesy cake. It's an incredibly decadent and satisfying slab of cream and sugar that, like Golden Restaurant and Bakery itself, is not to be missed.
Golden Restaurant & Bakery
2126 East Apache Boulevard
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Fridays
Manakeesh za'atar $1.99
Jumbo falafel sandwich $6.99