The Middle East and Mesa have a surprising amount in common. Geographically, the two areas share the same sort of stark desert landscape. Politically, each region's government officials--whether ayatollahs or legislators--share beliefs in the virtues of school prayer and a well-armed citizenry. And, gastronomically, believe it or not, their inhabitants seem to share a love of the same kind of food.
Not too many years ago, you stood about the same chance of finding any kind of ethnic cuisine in the East Valley as you did of tracking down the Lost Dutchman mine. Ethnic flair in Mesa meant toasting your white bread.
During the '90s, however, the dining scene has been rapidly changing. Now, not one, but two new Middle Eastern restaurants have opened their doors in the state's third-largest city. Both Sinbad and Cleopatra's are worthy destinations, serving cheap, hearty and authentic eats.
Operating out of a strip-mall storefront, Sinbad isn't much more visually impressive on the inside than it is on the outside. You won't see artifacts from the homeland. You will see about a dozen tables, each adorned with a white tablecloth under a glass top. You'll see a few mirrors on the wall and a lonely plant in the middle of the floor. Only the piped-in, finger-snapping Arabic music gives you an inkling as to the nationality of the food that will be coming out of the kitchen.
Sinbad, I'm told, is run by someone who used to work at Cafe Istanbul, one of the best Middle Eastern places in town. Obviously, he's picked up an education.
The fare has a Lebanese tilt, but draws from all over the region. Making your way through the substantial appetizer list is a good way to get acquainted with the choices, without threatening your credit-card limits. There are more than a dozen offerings, most of them comfortably priced at $3 or less.
Lubieh bizzeyt is one of my favorites, green beans stewed with tomatoes and plentiful chunks of garlic, served cold. Moujaddara is another offbeat starter, a mortared mound of mashed lentils and rice. Folks with smaller appetites might be tempted to call either one a meal, especially if they make their way through the pita bread basket at the same time.
Sinbad does a more than competent job crafting the usual starter suspects. Hummus (mashed chick peas) and baba ghanouj (pureed charbroiled eggplant seasoned with garlic, lemon and sesame-seed paste) hit the right taste buttons. Even better is the delightful tabbouleh, chopped parsley flecked with cracked wheat and scallions, coated with olive oil and punched up with lots of fresh, breath-tingling mint.
I usually avoid stuffed grape leaves, another appetizer fixture, because they frequently turn up as dried-out pellets. Not here, though. These critters are wonderfully moist specimens, zipped up with a splash of lemon. But I was put off by the spinach and cheese pie, done in by a jaw-breakingly chewy phyllo-dough wrap.
Like Americans, Middle Easterners are fond of deep-fried munchies. Only theirs seem to be a lot more interesting than ours. Instead of nibbling on battered zucchini strips or mozzarella sticks, for example, they prefer kibbeh akrass. It's ground lamb blended with cracked wheat and pine nuts, molded into a ball and fried. Middle Easterners have come up with an improvement on the ranch dressing dip, as well. Dunk your kibbeh into lebni, a creamy Lebanese yogurt jazzed up with mint and olive oil.
Falafel is a Middle Eastern sandwich staple, and it can be a snooze. But Sinbad's model is terrific--richly flavored with spices enlivening the deep-fried chick-pea and fava-bean balls. And if you've got a sense of adventure, try a sandwich of ma'anek, a Lebanese sausage that seems to be spiked with every spice in the spice rack. (Like all Middle Eastern food, it's highly seasoned, but not spicy hot.) The scent of cloves is particularly noticeable.
Mesans should find almost no main dish too exotic for their tastes. The one exception: kibbeh nayeh, raw ground lamb mixed with olive oil, spices and cracked wheat. Otherwise, though, Middle Easterners share our love of grilled meats.
The best way to sample them is to order the kebab combo, massive amounts of skewered chunks of lamb, kafta (ground lamb strongly seasoned with onions and parsley) and chicken breast. The meats are tender and fragrant, and authentically teamed with rice, broiled tomato and raw onion. At $7.95, the combo is the most expensive item here, but there's no shortage of value.
Sinbad is also one of the few places in the Valley to offer shawarma, a luscious Lebanese specialty of rotisserie-spun beef that hooked me when I lived in the Middle East. Sinbad's version isn't as good as those from my past. It isn't quite as good as Cafe Istanbul's, either. But it's still thoroughly enjoyable, and a vast improvement on that pale imitation, the gyro sandwich.