Veggie Boy: Phoenicia Cafe

By Benjamin Leatherman

It's not a deep-fried corn dog, but it'll do nicely.

I used to love the Arizona State Fair. But this year I’m gonna hate it. Endlessly.

See, one of the main highlights of attending our fair state’s annual exposition (which kicks off this weekend) has been loading up with undeniably decadent and utterly artery-clogging edibles. You name it, I ate it, especially if it’d been cooked in lard. Indian frybread? Yup. Funnel cakes? Absolutely. Corn dogs? I’d usually polish off a couple.

It was all ambrosia to my taste buds, and it’s all become off-limits since I became a slave to the vegetarian grind. There’s loads of lard, meat, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup in practically every single foodstuff getting slung by the vendors at the fair, all of which are verboten for the Veggie Boy. (Heck, I’ll even challenge my calorie-counting co-worker Wynter Holden to try and find something sensible and low-fat to sample for her Chow Bella column "The Skinny" admist all the rides and midway games).

But staying away from the fairgrounds during the next few weeks ain’t gonna be easy (especially since I live within walking distance of the place). My solution? Falafel, and lots of it.

For instance, I stopped by the Phoenicia Café (616 South Forest Avenue in Tempe, 480-967-8009) this past weekend to see if their version of the deep-fried Middle Eastern staple was still as good as it was during my ASU days in the late-‘90s.

And it is.

Frankly, it was the best I'd ever tasted. I brought my 14-year-old nephew along, who was a vegetarian for most of his childhood, to see if he agreed with me (he also digs falafel as much as I do). Plus, the blue-and-white Mediterranean eatery’s just a cool place to visit, as it’s attached to a market, Islamic community center, and mosque. We split an order of falafel pita boats and both our portions were filled with three zesty falafel patties covered in chopped greens, tahini, and humus. A side of fragrant basmati rice also came with the dish.

Is it me, or does the vegetarian sampler look kinda like Meowth from Pokémon?

I also balanced out our carbo-loading with the “vegetarian sampler,” featuring an artfully-arranged piles of humus, baba ghannouj, stuffed grape leaves, olives, and tabbouleh. The latter selection – made from diced mint, parsley, tomatoes, onions, and lemon juice – was crisp and tasty. My nephew wasn’t too hot on the stuffed grape leaves (describing it as “meh”) but we both loved the hummus and baba ghannouj, which had a smoky zip to it.

It was feast fit for the Middle East. Now if only they had a roller coaster...

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.