Turkish Delight

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It's a total pain to get anywhere in Tempe, especially when you're hungry.

More and more over the past few months, I've found myself avoiding restaurants I've frequented for years, unless I could stop by at an off time, or think of a clever route around the mess caused by a combination of light-rail construction, condo development and someone's bright idea that it's finally time to fix the sewer problem on Mill Avenue. If a restaurant's in the vicinity of University and Mill — where narrowed lanes and no left turns make for a hell of a drive — I'll take starvation over road rage any day.

In the case of Mill Avenue, that's not the only reason I've been staying away. Chain restaurants won't lure me down, and the bar scene isn't appetizing. I've grown bored with the old standbys, and there's been a good deal of turnover among the new eateries that actually have opened. Mill just doesn't come to mind when I'm in the mood to eat.


Med Fresh Grill

414 South Mill Avenue, Tempe

Adana kebab: $7.99

Chicken doner: $7.99

Falafel plate: $5.99

Vegetarian combo: $6.99

480-642-9709, web link.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Well, not until lately. Thanks to the debut of Med Fresh Grill, I'm actually feeling a little optimistic about the direction of Mill. This independent, family-owned business is exactly what the area needs more of, serving up luscious Turkish food at prices that let ASU work-study students feast like spoiled trust-funders.

The San brothers — Mustafa, Yusuf, and Edip — opened their eatery six months ago. Mustafa used to be the head chef at another Tempe restaurant, Efes Turkish Cuisine, but nowadays, he gets to show off his scrumptious dishes on his own turf. You'll find Yusuf and Edip in the kitchen, as well.

"I've been a chef for 38 years and I've lived all over the world," says Mustafa. "I brought these family recipes from Turkey, and they've been passed down over many generations."

He's quick to tell me that their house specialties — beef and chicken doner, roasted on a rotating vertical spit — are cooked daily, from scratch. Can't say that surprises me, because everything I tried at Med Fresh Grill lived up to the "fresh" part of the name. Quality is the restaurant's biggest appeal.

I was also struck by the friendliness of the staff. I could just sense that it was a family enterprise even before I confirmed it. You can see right into the kitchen from the counter, and it feels like all the employees welcome you when you order. From there, you can snag a table inside or outside.

Warm, saffron-tinted walls, painted murals of seaside towns, and colorful striped sconces lend a touch of relaxed cafe coziness to an otherwise simple, efficient, semifast-food environment. This is some of the best Mediterranean food in town, only it comes on Styrofoam plates and plastic trays.

Just about anything on the menu is available as a sandwich, but platters rule the house, and they're only a couple of dollars more. I'm still kind of amazed at how much food seven or eight bucks will get you at Med Fresh. Most of the plates come with a heap of long-grain rice that is moist and buttery; smooth hummus drizzled with olive oil; a nice salad of ripe tomato, cucumber, romaine, and mild creamy vinaigrette dressing; some thin pita (eat them while they're warm, or they'll dry up); and garnishes of parsley, onion, and tangy pickled turnips. After scarfing down all that, a tiny triangle of baklava was almost more than I could manage for dessert.

Beef and chicken doner were incredibly tender, worlds apart from similar dishes I've had elsewhere under the guise of shawarma or gyros. Here, the sliced, marinated meat was delicate and mildly spiced, especially the beef doner — which, I later found out from Mustafa, is half beef and half lamb.

The chicken version was slathered in a savory, cinnamon-tinged sauce and accompanied by a side of thick aioli. Made from just garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice, it was so good I wanted to dip everything in it. The same addictive purée came with the moist, slightly charred chicken kabob as well. Mustafa also makes a special spicy tomato sauce that's not on the menu but is available by request. (Folks who know Mustafa's fine cooking from Efes may already be familiar with it.)

Flame-broiled lamb and beef tenderloin kebabs were juicy and flavorful, even without any sauces. And the adana kebab, made from a mixture of ground beef and lamb, was seasoned with a kicky blend of onion, parsley, and spices, kind of like an exotic Mediterranean meatloaf.

It was full-blown, carnivorous bliss at Med Fresh, but the vegetarian half of the menu was just as delicious, and there were plenty of options. The falafel, in particular, was some of the best I've ever had. (And, boy, have I eaten a lot of falafel in my time.) Some places fry the garbanzo bean mixture until it's hard and crunchy on the outside, but here, the coating was thinner and lightly crispy, while the middle was still moist.

The baba ghanouj had a hint of smokiness from grilled eggplant, but nothing overpowering, and the stuffed grape leaves, filled with rice, parsley, and tomato, had just the right amount of tanginess. The tabouleh, too, was a refreshing balance of flavors, with parsley, onions, tomatoes, and cracked wheat dressed in a light blend of lemon juice and olive oil.

From the friendly owners and tasty dishes to the casual vibe and ultra-bargain prices, there's everything to love about Med Fresh Grill. And although there may not be countless reasons to grab a bite on Mill Ave., consider this: You really need only one.

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