When you walk into any marketplace in the Middle East, you're likely to be assaulted.
But not by thugs, terrorists or revolutionaries, those staples of television news, pulp fiction and dumb Bruce Willis movies.
Rather, by the sight of gleaming fruit and vegetables, just in from the fields. And by the high-decibel din of shoppers, who bombard shopkeepers with questions about quality and noisily haggle over price.
But it's the American sense of smell that's particularly overwhelmed. From every side come scents of grilled meats, the powerful aroma of fresh-baked bread and the perfumed fragrances of exotic spices.
What's true in the bazaar goes double in restaurants. Even the lowliest kebab joints send out emanations that will probably have your stomach rumbling before you unfold the napkin on your lap.
Haji-Baba, a decade-old Tempe institution, aims to re-create the Middle Eastern food experience. For the most part, it's pretty successful.
It's both restaurant and grocery store, fully stocked with essentials like roasted sesame seeds, rose water and dry sour cherries. There's also plenty of merchandise, including Persian music cassettes, prayer rugs and embroidered robes.
The small dining area features a large mural along the far wall. It depicts crumbling desert ruins, a scene, I think, of some poignancy to Valley dwellers. Otherwise, the room is strictly utilitarian, from the brown-vinyl chairs to the basic industrial carpet.
Like the Bedouin, the menu ranges across the Middle East, oblivious to the artificial borders imposed by the victorious Allies after World War I.
The appetizers are exceptional, the best part of the meal. Foul (pronounced fool) mudammas is an Egyptian specialty, small fava beans seasoned, like many other dishes, with lemon juice and garlic. Here, they're mashed to a pulp, kind of a Mideast version of refried beans. Hummus, made from ground chickpeas, and baba ghanouj, made from roasted pur‚ed eggplant, have appealing, offbeat flavors. These dips require fresh, warm pita bread for scooping, and Haji-Baba furnishes an outstanding tool.
It seems like most Middle Eastern ingredients get chopped, ground, diced, mashed or pur‚ed somewhere along the way. My Lebanese neighbor, in pre-food-processor days, used to take all day preparing tabbouleh. She and her family would methodically chop a mountain of fresh parsley and green onions, adding diced tomatoes and cracked wheat. Haji-Baba's version, tinged with lemon and olive oil, is just as good. Terrific, too, is the sanbusek, a crisp, deep-fried, egg-roll-like creature stuffed with onions and heavily spiced ground meat. I'm surprised the Chinese haven't thought of it.
The combination-plate route offers an easy way to sample most of the main dishes.
The cleverly named "Combination #1" is designed for large, protein-starved carnivores. It features three hefty skewers--more than a pound of meat, I'm sure--of chicken, ground meat and hunks of beef.
The secret to kebabs is the marinating. Haji-Baba isn't off track, but the process could have made the meat juicier and a bit more intensely flavored. This plate may make your head nod with pleasure, but it won't buckle your knees with ecstasy.
Order this platter with a side order of rice. It's several time zones away from Uncle Ben's--steamed, long-grain basmati, authentically spiked with sumac, a purple spice with a fruity, sour taste. The other combination--aptly called "Combination #2"--offers stuffed grape leaves, falafel, kibbe and gyro meat, along with a taste of several appetizers. The rice-stuffed vegetarian grape leaves are a savory experience, with a chewy filling and tender greenery. Kibbe is a mix of ground beef, pine nuts and bulgur wheat, shaped into a square patty and heavily infused with cumin. It's dense and pleasingly pungent, but awfully dry. Along with skyjackings and deportations, the gyro is a Middle Eastern specialty the world could do without. Here in the USA, it's generally a precooked, processed product that tastes no more like meat than "krab" resembles crab. Maybe Americans expect it in a place like Haji-Baba, but they don't have to eat it.
Especially because Haji-Baba has a delicious alternative, shawarma. This Lebanese treat comes here as a pita sandwich of moist, fresh-cooked, shredded beef slathered with tahini (lemon juice, garlic and sesame paste), parsley, green onions and pickles. It leaves burgers in the dust, and the $2.95 price shouldn't leave anyone in danger of filing Chapter 7 papers.
Cognoscenti can indulge their exotic whims by ordering the lamb-tongue sandwich. It's very strongly flavored, and a real conversation starter once you offer bites to your table mates. Middle Eastern desserts tend to be sweet enough to strip the enamel from your teeth. Two Persian sweets, featuring fried hunks of dough drenched in a rose-water-tinged sugar syrup, ought to come with a complimentary toothbrush. The cashew baklava, strangely enough, could have benefited from a few more tablespoons of honey.
The most disappointing part of the evening was the postprandial beverage. In the Middle East, tea is not only a drink, it's part of the ritual of hospitality. But when I asked for mint tea, I got only a cup of hot water and a tea bag of peppermint infusion. The Salt River may not be the River Jordan, and Tempe is hardly the promised land. But for cheap, plentiful and tasty Middle Eastern fare, Haji-Baba's worth the desert trek. Mediterranean House, 1588 East Bethany Home, Phoenix, 248-8460. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.
Middle Eastern cuisine, broadly defined, runs on an east-west axis from Morocco to Afghanistan, and north-south from Greece to Egypt. It's a gigantic area.
Mediterranean House, though, never quite convinced me it wanted to be part of that world.
Like Haji-Baba, it's totally unpretentious. And it also has a room-length mural. This one features idyllic scenes studded with sheep, villages and ruins. Eager-to-please staff members bustle about the homey room. Steady "pings" from the kitchen microwave provide the only aural entertainment.
The combination appetizer gave us our first hint that the place doesn't unreservedly embrace the Mideast kitchen. Sure, the platter contained the right suspects--hummus, baba ghanouj and falafel. But the hummus and baba ghanouj had only the barest hint of the lemony, garlicky, sesame-seed tahini kick. The falafel came strangely textured, thick and bready, lacking that freshly fried-up taste. The soups, too, lacked zip. Mediterranean soup was a microwave victim, steaming hot at some depths, room temperature at others. Too bad, too, because it was chock-full of ground beef and lamb, orzo and tomato. Lentil soup, a rich broth of pur‚ed lentils, hit only one note on the flavor scale. With the right seasoning, it could have been a symphony.
Dinners are reasonably priced, nothing more than $8.95, with some main dishes that are substantial, hearty and flavorful. A couple are really scrumptious. Had this place been called "Joe's Diner," my enthusiasm might not have been tempered by twinges of disappointment.
The combo shish kebab plate is a Mideast perennial. The lamb skewer was overcooked, but the meat itself was tender, with a heady lamb scent. The beef and chicken also exhibited first-rate quality. But none of the three skewers gave off the exotic fragrances I associate with this dish. Chicken shushka reminded me of ropa vieja, the Cuban specialty. The platter comes with a ton of shredded chicken over rice, submerged in a sea of tomato sauce. It's quite good, but it's overseasoned with ladlefuls of rosemary and pepper, hardly the distinguishing flavors of Middle Eastern cooking. The two plain, good-sized lamb chops were great. They came grilled to juicy perfection, and at $7.95, this might be one of the best lamb values in town.
Just as good was Egyptian chicken. It's a huge plate of sliced chicken breast, battered and fried. Had it come with a sweet lemon sauce, it would have exactly duplicated the lemon chicken I get at my local Chinese restaurant.
However, the "Greek" salad that precedes dinner, a bit of crumbled feta perched on underdressed lettuce, could definitely use tuning up. And the rice accompanying all these dishes is not aromatic basmati, just a plain, long-grain variety. Instead of sumac, it's sprinkled with paprika, a colorful, if odd, choice.
Desserts seem more closely attuned to a Phoenix diner than an establishment named "Mediterranean House." There's chocolate cake, ice cream and three varieties of cheesecake. But it's unlikely anyone finishing a main dish will have room for any of them.
Baklava is the only dessert here with ethnic roots, but this dry, timeworn version didn't do much for the cause of multiculturalism. We found the thick Turkish coffee a much better way to end the meal.
Mediterranean House is a cozy, low-key place that would improve any neighborhood. In particular, the main dishes are affordable and substantial and pretty darn tasty. And in the end, I decided there's really no need to tinker with the menu, just because of some stubborn "authenticity" fetish. The next time you're in the mood for well-prepared, ill-defined ethnic fare, this is a place to go.