Years ago, living in Los Angeles, I had Middle Eastern neighbors, refugees from the civil war in Lebanon. The wife seemed to have superhuman energy--working full-time, keeping close watch on three kids and cooking up a storm.
Once in a while, Nadja would send over a platter of the evening's goodies: tabbouleh, hummus, kafta, falafel, kibbe, rice pudding. Whatever she sent over was certain to be a lot better than anything our time-challenged household could put together. Occasionally, when the seductive aromas were wafting out of her kitchen, and my own cooking wasn't going so well, I'd send my kids over to stand by her door. I'd instruct them to look cute, sniff the scented air and innocently ask what those wonderful smells were. That was usually good enough to land at least a tray of assorted appetizers and a pile of pita bread.
These memories all came bubbling up after a couple of visits to Elie's Deli, a new mom-and-pop Middle Eastern operation in Phoenix. I felt as if I were eating in my neighbor's kitchen. The homespun fare tastes like it's made by someone's mom--the food is simple, but remarkably fresh, tasty and cheap.
The outgoing, hardworking proprietors are Lebanese, by way of New Jersey, where they ran a restaurant. They moved here a few months ago, seduced by the weather--in the Valley of the Perpetual Sun, you don't have to shovel heat.
The small shop used to house a Japanese fast-food place. The new proprietors haven't gone out of their way to inject much in the way of homeland atmosphere--no tourist board pictures, no piped-in old-country music, no brass trays or coffee sets. The only Lebanese cue is an old photo of Martyr's Square in Beirut. Otherwise, you can stare at posters of Boar's Head meats or gaze at vases of fake yellow daffodils brightening the tables.
The kitchen sends out American sandwiches and Middle Eastern dishes. Forget the you-can-get-them-anywhere Philly-cheese-steak, Italian-sub and ham-and-cheese-sandwich part of the menu. The kitchen's heart is clearly in the native fare.
That's certainly the case with the homemade chicken soup, one day's special. This is how chicken soup is supposed to taste--a rich broth, fleshed out with hunks of chicken and heaps of veggies. The cook ought to keep a pot of this going until March. It's a wonderful way to take the sting out of a Phoenix winter.
Elie's limited menu isn't breaking any new culinary ground. But what the usual Middle Eastern suspects lack in novelty, they make up in quality.
Hummus is right on target, ground chickpeas embellished with tahini, a garlicky, lemony sesame seed paste. My neighbor Nadja used to make tabbouleh by hand, meticulously cutting parsley, adding some bulgur wheat and tomato, and then goosing everything up with olive oil, lemon and mint. Elie's does it the same way, and the results are just as impressive.
I was smitten by the vegetarian grape leaves, stuffed with rice, tomatoes, chickpeas and parsley. Too often these critters turn out to be dry, lifeless pellets. The ones here, though, haven't been sitting around, waiting for somebody to order them. Plump and moist, they've also got a pleasant lemony tang.
Fatoush is another sprightly way to get your taste buds primed. It's a distinctive Middle Eastern salad composed of greenery, tomatoes, cucumber, onion and parsley, mixed with toasted pita bread and tossed with a lemon dressing. Make it lunch, or share one before dinner.
Foul moudammas is somewhat more ethnically challenging. It's traditionally made with fava beans, and mixed with tomatoes and onion. But for some reason, Elie's used a different bean variety. Only inflexible purists, however, will have anything to complain about.
Don't pass on the homemade yogurt. It tastes just like the yogurt I used to have when I lived in the region--creamy, with a sweet-tangy bite. Try it Middle Eastern-style, mixed with cucumber and a dash of mint and garlic.
The main dishes have a certain familiarity, but that doesn't mean they breed contempt. The key is freshness--most everything tastes like it just jumped off a grill or leaped out of the fryer.
The star is clearly the kibbe, aromatic baked ground beef, flecked with pine nuts and scented with just about every seasoning in the Lebanese spice rack. Order this with a side of basmati rice and yogurt, and you may not have the strength ever to order anything else here.
If peace in the Middle East is the region's most pressing issue, dried-out falafel is probably the second most vexing problem. Fortunately, Elie's knows the solution--the moist, crunchy falafel balls here are neither old nor leaden.
Kafta, a highly seasoned skewer of ground beef, makes a great sandwich, especially when the pita bread is lined with hummus. Marinated chicken, slathered with yogurt, also provides good eating. I'm less impressed, however, with the shish kebab, slivers of grilled lamb that fall a bit short on flavor and tenderness.
The kitchen's biggest sin is one of omission. There's no shawarma, a Lebanese specialty made from beef and lamb layered on a rotisserie. The gyro sandwich is a mighty poor substitute.
For dessert, there's dynamite rice pudding and honey-drenched homemade baklava. Middle Eastern crisis? You'd never know it at Elie's Deli.
Priya, 1761 East Warner, Tempe, 777-3466. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
They could eat pizza. They could eat chow mein. They could eat Southern fried chicken. But polls show that Indians prefer Indian food by a margin of about 900 million to one.
I'm with them. I adore Indian food--it's exotic, complex and sophisticated, a cuisine of infinite variety.
Apparently, Valley dwellers are starting to agree with me. New Indian restaurants are sprouting all over the Valley--at least five so far this year.
One of the newcomers is Priya. Its proprietors recently moved here from the Bay Area, setting up their restaurant in a shopping-center storefront that last housed the Chimayo Grill.
Like the owners of Elie's Deli, they haven't done much in the way of redecorating. The Southwestern knickknacks have been taken down, and framed scenes from Indian mythology have taken their places on the whitewashed walls. Homeland music is gently piped in. A lunchtime buffet wagon has been rolled out to the back of the room. Three nice touches: linen-lined tables, cloth napkins and hefty cutlery.
I hope the owners of Pasand, a nearby competitor, believe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That's because Priya's proprietors evidently spent a great deal of time studying Pasand's menu--the two are virtually identical, right down to the layout and graphics.
Like Pasand, Priya features south Indian fare. As far as I'm aware, these are the only two places in town where you'll find regional dishes like idli sambar, methu vada, rasam, masala dosa, utappam and upma. And, make no mistake, Priya's kitchen knows how to make them.
Sambar is a thick, spicy, cumin-accented lentil soup, while idli are light, steamed rice cakes designed to soak up the liquid. Methu vada are another sambar accompaniment, deep-fried fritters made from lentil flour. Both sambar models hit their mark.
Rasam, meanwhile, is a tangy, tamarind-infused, veggie-stocked broth. The sweet-sour flavor of tamarind is an acquired taste that I acquired long ago. If you've got an adventurous palate, the adventure is certainly affordable--just $1.50.
Masala dosa and utappam are perhaps Priya's two best dishes. The former is an enormous crepe that hangs over the plate, fashioned out of lentil and rice flour. It's crisp and light, and stuffed with a mix of potatoes and peas. Utappam is a dream, a thick, starchy, griddled rice flour pancake flecked with chile and onions, served with outstanding coconut and tomato-chile dips. It's best ordered as an appetizer, to be split three or four ways.
It's a little harder to get excited about upma, unless you have no teeth. It resembles a porridge, gently flavored with cumin seeds, and gilded with split yellow peas, onions and almonds.
Priya also serves more familiar north Indian fare. The vegetable dishes are by far the most successful. Try kofta curry, deep-fried balls made from ground veggies and cheese in a luscious tomato cream sauce. Bhendi masala curry features a blend of okra, onions and tomatoes. My favorite is bagara bangan, small, wonderfully spiced Japanese eggplant.
If you're looking for animal protein, avoid dishes made with chunks of lamb, which is gristly and fatty. You're much better off ordering lamb in the form of shammi kebab, minced lamb rolled with spices and deep-fried.
Chicken is a better carnivore option, especially the chicken tikka masala curry, boneless pieces of poultry seared in the tandoor and bathed in a mild curry. Palak chicken curry, a chicken-spinach dish, would have been better had the cook let go of the salt shaker a few seconds earlier.
Two Indian restaurant staples--biriyani and tandoori platters--can't compete with the Valley's best. The biriyanis, classic Indian rice dishes, lack the rich, lusty flavors that usually make them so compelling. And someone didn't keep a close eye on my tandoori mixed grill. Everything--chicken, lamb, fish, shrimp--spent too long in the oven, and came out dry.
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Priya's heart seems to be mostly in its south Indian fare. Stick to that region, and you'll leave here whistling Dixie.
Elie's Deli, 4502 East Thomas, Phoenix, 522-2744. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Kafta sandwich $3.79
Kibbe platter 6.99
Rice pudding 1.75
Bagara bangan 8.50
Chicken tikka 9.00