Welcome to 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.
9: Lunch at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli
If you're already inclined to order lemonade with your lunch, then you probably want to order the homemade lemonade at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli, the decades-old staple on 16th Street in central Phoenix. It's really a wonderful lemonade, sweetened by honey and fragrant with the unmistakable herbal notes of rosewater. It has a tart-salty kick, too. True, it's pretty sweet, but lemonade is supposed to be sweet, and this particular lemonade is refreshing enough to allay the discomfort of a hot Arizona afternoon.
I mention the lemonade right at the top, because it's fairly easy to forget to grab a cup when you're standing in line to put in your order. The counter-service bakery, restaurant, and market is small and friendly, and you can get lost in its well-stocked shelves, or to get distracted by the sweet scent of bread and baklava being baked in the back.
So, go ahead and get the lemonade, if you wish, but there is really no wrong way to order. Pretty much everything is homemade and fresh, and there seems to be something on the menu for everyone in your lunch or dinner group: vegetarians, gluten-free diners, and meat-lovers will likely be satisfied by the expansive menu.
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This is a justifiably popular central Phoenix lunch spot, and the typical spread might include the Lebanese chicken, a grilled chicken breast perfumed with garlic and lemon. There's the falafel sandwich, which features one of the calling cards of Middle Eastern Bakery: beautifully soft, ultra-fresh pita bread. The tabbouleh is fresh and chunky, and the homemade hummus has an earthy, mellow coolness that makes it the perfect appetizer for warm-weather days, of which we tend to have many here in metro Phoenix.
If you are indecisive, there is always the sampler, a greatest hits platter furnished with falafel, dolmas, gyro meat, hummus, baba ganoush, and kibbeh.
Even if lunch leaves you stuffed, it would be a mistake to leave without pausing to study the bakery counter. Like any bakery, the selection will vary depending on what time of day you stop in. But there's always baklava, and it's always wonderful. How many layers are in a single slice of the baklava at Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli? Infinite layers. Well, not quite, although it does seem like those layers go on forever. The baklava is delivered in thick, generous wedges, with layer upon thin layer of extra-crispy filo dough resting on a thick base of crunchy, chopped nuts, all of it wondrously shellacked with butter and honey syrup. It's pretty great. Apart from baklava, you may find fresh-baked breads, sweet confections like halva, and desserts like rice pudding.
You'll come to Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli for the familiar pleasures of falafel and hummus, the pillow-soft pita bread, and the addictive baklava — and maybe a cup of lemonade to go. But you might also come for the hospitality. Longtime owner Isam Saed and his team are quick to smile and answer questions; friendly resident baker Hussein Chahin will explain how the bread is made, if you ask. Someone will help you find a good cookbook to take home with you, or locate the right spice you need for that new recipe you're trying out. And your mood will probably be nicely buoyed by the honey-sweetened lemonade, and the slice of that divine baklava you just ate.
Not a bad way to spend your lunch hour.
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner.
29: Sonoran Hot Dog at El Caprichoso.
28: Sashimi at Nobuo at Teeter House.
27: Oysters at Casey Moore's Oyster House.
26: Spring rolls at Da Vang.
25: Bruschetta and wine at Postino.
24: Hot green chili fry bread at Fry Bread House.
23: The Big One at The Chuckbox.
22: Cahuamanta Stew at Cahuamanta El Yaqui.
21: Dim Sum at Great Wall Cuisine.
20: Fried chicken at The Horny Toad.
19: George & Dragon’s Famous Fish & Chips.
18: Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches at Pho 43rd Express.
17: Cerreta Candy Co. Factory Tour & Candy Sampling in Downtown Glendale.
16: Steak Dinner at The Stockyards.
15: Margarita + Guacamole del Barrio at Barrio Cafe.
14: BBQ Plate at Joe's Real BBQ.
13: Fried Chicken & Pork Chops from Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe.
12: Breakfast Burrito at Yucca Tap Room.
11: Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies at Super Chunk.
10: Doro Wat at Cafe Lalibela.