Cafe Reviews

Spices Mediterranean Kitchen's Appeal Goes Beyond the Food

I've always considered myself a pretty DIY person, even when it comes to cooking. Although I haven't tried to tackle a culinary masterpiece like Mastering the Art of French Cooking à la blogger Julie Powell, I can at least list from-scratch puff pastry among my kitchen accomplishments.

But let me tell you, it was pretty hellish, and I'm not rushing to try that again. In fact, in the middle of a busy work week, I'm not rushing to do much baking, grilling, or roasting at all. If it can't be broiled or sautéed in a few minutes, I'm probably heading to a restaurant.

Lately, it's been Spices Mediterranean Kitchen. Since eating their tasty shish kabobs on a few occasions recently, I've completely slacked off making them at home. Why not relax, drink a cold beer, nibble on hummus, and chat with friends while the experts take care of sizzling the meat? Works for me.

This is such a likable neighborhood place, and the food is just the beginning. In the tradition of any great mom-and-pop operation, owners Etgar and Misti Wagner have set a high standard for service at their two-year-old restaurant, with Etgar himself working the cash register more often than not, eager to answer questions for first-timers and welcome back repeat customers. (He's a former pro soccer player from Israel, and she's an Arizona native who co-owns a talent agency with her parents.)

Planted in the middle of a strip mall plaza at the northwest corner of Ray and McClintock in Chandler, Spices has a typical "fast-casual" setup, where you order at the counter and they bring the food to your table. The atmosphere is sleekly efficient (to the point that you may first at wonder if it's a little-known chain restaurant) dominated by the shiny, stainless-steel open kitchen along the back of the dining room. But the attentiveness and courtesy of the staff is anything but typical for this kind of place. They'll check in to see if you're enjoying your meal, and they'll clear away empty plates.

The offerings aren't expansive, but they aren't entirely predictable, either. Sure, you can find standards like falafel and gyros at countless Mediterranean restaurants in the Valley, but what about Israeli treats like bourekas, labni, or — in all seriousness — French fries? Yep, they sure do eat a lot of fries in Jerusalem, and you'll find them listed right along with hummus and pita at Spices.

And speaking of hummus and pita, those were the obvious choices to start the meal. The flatbread was big, warm, and floury, while the super-smooth hummus, scattered with pine nuts, served as an edible reservoir for a nice portion of flavorful olive oil. A richer variation, topped with a mix of lamb and beef shawarma, was good enough to fill up on.

Yogurt, crème fraîche, feta cheese — you name it, I'm crazy about tangy dairy products, and labni is no exception. Spices serves the cool, creamy cheese (which is similar to Greek yogurt) with olive oil, fresh mint, za'atar (a traditional Middle Eastern herb and spice mix), and a side of pita, but I'd happily eat it straight up, with a spoon, if need be.

In contrast, the malawach cheese crisp was hot and flaky, a round puff pastry (better than anything I'd attempt to make at home) covered in melted mozzarella and crumbles of feta. Cut into wedges, it resembled a tiny pizza — and sort of tasted like one, too, when I dipped it into a cup of light tomato sauce. (There's also a sweet cinnamon-and-honey version for dessert.) An entrée called bourekas had a similar crispy, cheesy flair, with feta and mozzarella melted inside a cocoon of puff pastry. It was cut into strips, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and teamed with the same tomatoey dip.

So back to those shish kabobs, which I find myself craving a lot lately. These thick, skewered chunks of marinated chicken, beef, and lamb were grilled until juicy and faintly charred. Nothing fancy, just cooked right. Too bad more Mediterranean restaurants can't nail this seemingly simple thing.

I enjoyed all three kinds — there's a combo plate with a skewer of each — but the lamb kabob really hooked me. Served with warm pita, a cup of silky tahini sauce, fragrant rice, and a scoop of refreshing, tangy Mediterranean salad (diced tomato, cucumber, and red and green onion), the meat was tender and just salty enough.

Three kinds of shawarma were available as a similar entrée plate, with all the same sides as the kabob, or as a sandwich. My chicken shawarma pita tasted luscious but still pretty guilt-free — the strips of meat were succulent, not greasy, wrapped up with cool Mediterranean salad and a drizzle of tahini. I gobbled up the whole thing in a matter of minutes (after eating a good amount of hummus) and felt energized.

Even the falafel was prepared with a light touch, as far as fried things go. Over the years, I've had too much heavy, hard, crunchy falafel that needed a good soaking in tahini sauce to be somewhat edible, but this was nothing of the sort. Formed into small, round patties, Spices' impressive falafel was a fried to a deep caramel color but very crispy and delicate, giving way to a moist interior.

Sweet malawach and rolled baklava were the only two choices for dessert, and since I'd already eaten plenty of puff pastry between the malawach cheese crisp and the bourekas, I craved baklava instead.

This was an interesting version — deceptively dry-looking, rolled in pale sheets of phyllo, with crushed pistachios on top. But biting into one these plump, cigar-shaped confections, I found that the papery outer layer of dough gave way to an almost juicy, doughy middle that was neither sickly sweet nor packed with dry nut filling like some kinds of baklava. I was tempted to order seconds.

After all, I doubted I'd be baking up a batch of baklava at home anytime soon.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig