A Classic Tempe Restaurant With Killer Kebabs and Lamb Tongue Sandwiches

The lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba in Tempe.
The lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba in Tempe. Patricia Escarcega
Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba

One of the oldest restaurants on Apache Boulevard in Tempe is Haji Baba, a spartan, sit-down Middle Eastern spot tucked inside an aging strip mall.

Since the early 1980s, the hybrid restaurant, market and deli, which is located just south of the ASU campus, has fed countless college students and university staff. It remains a highlight of campus area dining, even as the lunch and dinner options on Apache have multiplied over the years.

Haji Baba is divided into two distinct sections: the dining room, which is usually quite crowded, and the grocery store, which boasts a good selection of fresh veggies, packaged herbs, teas, and import items. Don't miss the bakery case tucked below the register, which is filled with various types of homemade baklava.

click to enlarge The lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba in Tempe. - PATRICIA ESCARCEGA
The lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba in Tempe.
Patricia Escarcega
Over on the restaurant side, you'll find top-notch mezzes, including classic small plate dips like homemade hummus, and a very creamy baba ganoush. Service is quick, and the portions are famously generous.

It's hard to go wrong with plates like the kebab koobideh, a juicy ground beef kebab blended with onion and parsley, or vegetarian-friendly standards like crisp, cleanly fried falafel. A perennial top seller is the juicy chicken shawarma, a garlicky rendition garnished with minty tabbouleh. Slightly less popular, but no less delicious, is the sanbusek, an extra-crispy, grizzled meat fritter stuffed with ground beef and onions. It's sometimes described as a meat "egg roll," and it's outrageously good.

I don't think you can properly call yourself a Haji Baba connoisseur, though, until you've eaten the kitchen's terrific lamb tongue sandwich.

The sandwich bulges with velvety hunks of slow-cooked tongue, which are topped with a light salad and cradled inside pillowy soft pita bread. The tongue is stewed slowly for six to eight hours, an employee told me recently, and subtly seasoned with garlic, pepper, and herbs. The meat is earthy and savory, and as tender and comforting as grandma's pot roast. "Try it once," the menu says, "and you will not stop talking about it!"

This, you realize, is not an empty boast. You'll wax poetic about that impossibly tender, simple lamb tongue sandwich to anyone who will listen, and you'll remember exactly why Haji Baba has been a Tempe institution since long before the Valley Metro Light Rail was known to hurtle down Apache Boulevard.

Not bad for a $6 sandwich.

Haji Baba.1513 East Apache Boulevard, Tempe; (480) 894-1905.
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
25: Lamb tongue sandwich at Haji Baba

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.