Cafe Reviews

Phyllo Groovy

ZakeE's chef-owner Sal Alqardahji is pleased that I'm making a complete pig of myself at lunch. I suppose there aren't that many customers who order two appetizers, three or four entrees, salads and dessert for a noon repast, but my dining companion and I are really hungry, I tell him, not without some embarrassment.

Beyond being a restaurant owner's dream, my eating habits are healthy, he assures me. Lunch should be the main meal of the day. Too many people pack it in at dinner, he explains, then lie around and let the calories turn to mush. If my companion and I want to eat ourselves into a coma, it's better -- even commendable -- that we do it long before bedtime.

Of course, he's assuming that this will be our only meal of the day.

This forgiving way of thinking is just one of the reasons I like Alqardahji, who, with his brother, Lawrence, has operated ZakeE for the past year. His personal approach, as much as the quality of his cooking, is likely what's made ZakeE into such a popular neighborhood joint for East Valley folks craving a quick Mediterranean meal. He knows most customers by name, it seems, as well as their favorite foods, where they work, and even their lucky numbers. My guess is if a guest has been in the store even once, he or she is treated like a regular.

A near twin to Sean Connery in appearance and voice, Alqardahji is the tall, goateed man you'll see behind the counter, working the phones, clearing the tables, calling us à la David Letterman's announcer to pick up our meals, and stepping in to help Lawrence chop, grill, wrap and place food on plastic trays. He's the one ringing up our checks, and beaming when our ticket comes up with a "lucky" number ("Oh, you're order number 21, my favorite number. That's good. It means you're going to have a great day."). Another guest receives a register total of $6.66, which Alqardahji promptly re-rings as $6.65.

In a no-frills age of shouting orders into plastic squawk boxes at drive-throughs, and being met with that "God, I wish I was anywhere but here" gaze from surly counter order takers, Alqardahji is a breath of fresh air.

Plunked in the middle of yet another nondescript strip mall on the Chandler/Tempe border, ZakeE doesn't inspire much Middle Eastern charm in its decor. The store is the typical glass-fronted box, starkly dressed with mint-green concrete floors under tan walls sporting an art collection of sphinx, ocean landscape and desert scenery. Drinks are self-serve, and we toss our rubbish when we're done. I'm not expecting dancing girls, but had I walked in without already knowing what type of food to expect, I'd never have guessed I'd be getting good quality falafels, shawarma or dolmas instead of a greasy cheeseburger.

ZakeE means "very delicious" in Arabic, Alqardahji tells me. Overall, I've got to agree (certainly the neighborhood's Middle Eastern contingent does; they're out in force every time I visit here). While some of the food here isn't the knock-your-socks-off Middle Eastern fare to be found at our larger Valley restaurants, it is all homemade, and at around six bucks for an entree, it fills my belly just fine.

Pretty much anything in this world containing feta is a winner, and the salty cheese plays a starring role in ZakeE's Greek salad (available with or without marinated chicken). It's a good thing I can't get enough of its pickled flavor, tossed in huge handfuls with the typical blend of crunchy romaine, tomato cucumber, red onion slices and zesty kalamata olives. The "special" dressing served atop is another standout, a simple red wine vinaigrette skyrocketed with obscene amounts of fresh sliced garlic. Eat enough of this potent dressing for a workday lunch, and you'll find out who your real friends are back at the office.

Much less aggressive is the tabbouleh, a pleasant little chop of bulgur (cracked wheat) mixed with chopped tomatoes, green onions, parsley and ground mint. The cold, emerald green dice comes coated in olive oil and lemon juice, to be tucked into accompanying warm pita bread. Tip: Unless you're a huge tabbouleh fan, get the half-order along with another dish for greater variety in flavor.

The Middle East is famous for its soothing dips, and ZakeE serves them with creamy finesse. If baby food were this good, parents wouldn't have to play silly airplane games to get junior to open his hangar. On days I'm too tired to chew, hummus is my best friend, with its compliant mash of garbanzo beans, lemon juice, garlic olive oil and tahini (sesame-seed paste) spread in a pita. And baba ghanouj brings a similar purée, substituting roasted, smoked eggplant for the garbanzo beans. I've had better yogurt cucumber dip, though -- the version served here is too thin and soupy for my taste, with not enough mint to spark the sleepy sauce.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet