It’s a pita jungle out there. Find the latest in Mediterranean cuisine with this Valleywide roundup.
Casa de Falafel
Our tour this month begins in a Peoria Shell station. Half of it is a perfectly ordinary convenience store, with marked-up bottles of Coke and bags of Doritos. The other half – the Casa de Falafel half – serves the best falafel in the Valley. Start with the falafel plate ($7.50), featuring a ring of flawlessly fried little chickpea fritters, hearty but not heavy, dense or dry, as the dish is wont to be, along with salad and fries. The lentil soup ($2) was a bit too close to split pea for my taste, but the beef saj plate ($12), partnering the meat with yummy hummus and red peppers in a tortilla-like wrap, was a fine hunger-vanquishing dinner option. Wash it down with a cup of tangy tamarind juice ($2 and up). Casa de Falafel is takeout-oriented, but there is a little area with tables and a lovely view of the pumps if you’re determined to have a romantic dinner out. Also: pretty cheap gas.
Must try: Making their falafel in your own kitchen – a take-home bag of the mix is $7.75.
6730 W. Cactus Rd., Peoria, 623-979-9234
Zabari Mediterranean Grill
As it can refer to Middle Eastern, Southern European or North African cuisine, the broad term “Mediterranean restaurant” sometimes seems euphemistic, designed to dispel any number of ethnic, religious or nationalistic bigotries. At this beguiling eatery, with its oddly avant-garde vibe (Chaplin’s Modern Times was on the big screen during my visit), the focus is Glatt Kosher (“extra kosher,” essentially, following even stricter guidelines than the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut) Mediterranean food – schnitzel, cabbage salad and hummus on the same menu. The tender, lightly breaded chicken schnitzel ($9.95) was splendid as the star of an entrée plate, alongside the choice of three salads. I went with hummus, baba ganoush and a coarser eggplant salad, all delectably executed (and all three available separately for $5.95 each). Only the stuffed grape leaves ($5.95) hit a sour note, literally: They were too suffused with citrusy acidic punch for my taste.
Must try: The beef shish kabob, packed with veggies into a fine fluffy pita ($10.95), is a gratifying take on the steak sandwich.
3831 E. Thunderbird Rd., 602-482-0444,
CHAR Kitchen + Bar
This elegant Scottsdale spot features copious American staples: burgers and Reubens and Caesars, oh my! All of them are worth trying, but the owners pay homage to their Albanian heritage by imbuing the menu with some Mediterranean soul food influences, and that’s where the restaurant really shines. My favorite was the lamb gyro ($13) – clean, sweet piles of shaved lamb elevated by a simple supporting cast of tomato, onion and cool, creamy tzatziki. The Mediterranean steak wrap ($14), with lean steak cooked to order and wrapped up with a sprightly medley of charred tomato, cucumbers, garlic and eggplant spread, is quite good, and I could pop falafel bites ($7) – lounging in a pool of tzatziki – all day. Looking for an eye-pleaser? The mezze platter ($15) offers sliced cucumbers, carrots and pita, elegantly arranged on the plate as the vehicles for CHAR’s flavorful hummus, dill sauce and an enchanting red pepper chutney.
Must try: Don’t miss the warm lemon chicken soup ($7), temptingly topped with pools of paprika oil.
6107 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-664-9238, charkitchen.com
Buried somewhere behind ASU Gammage on the university’s Tempe campus, this carry-out-only bird emporium is a bit remote for non-Devils. It’s worth the park and slog, though, both for the cheery Cassandra Contreras mural of graffitist chickens tagging a wooden fence, and the irresistible goodies. The chicken sandwiches ($12 each for a combo) are geographically themed, ranging from Bangkok to Barcelona to Cancun to TLV (Tel Aviv). I went with the designated homer option, the Arizona Chicken, on a bun bathed in barbecue aioli and piled with stewed onions and wonderful crunchy pickles. Not sure what’s specifically Arizonan about it, but it is tasty. So is the Vienna Chicken, stuffed with schnitzel just as good as Zabari’s. Sides include couscous ($3.15), on the dry side despite the mix-in of onions; and a nice, crisp Israeli salad of chopped cucumber and tomatoes with pleasantly soggy croutons. Everything’s kosher, by the way, and the proprietors request that no outside food be brought in.
Must try: The falafel ($5.50 for a bowl or 50 cents by the ball) is outstanding – grease-free and light, almost as good as Casa de Falafel’s.
240 E. Orange Mall, Tempe, 480-665-2185, facebook.com/chickinasu
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