One of the more pleasurable aspects of this job is discovering little, unpretentious, out of the way places where the owners are hard working, pleasant and honest people just trying to succeed in a tough economy and a tough business.
Such places provide authentic, fresh and tasty food at a fair price.
Such was the case when I discovered a little Mediterranean restaurant recently bought by Shadi and Sourena Afshari called simply, Shish-Kabob's.
The place itself isn't new -- previous owners had it for close to 12 years -- but about six months ago, Shadi decided that after 11 years in the Broken Arrow school's dietary department it was time to strike out on her own, so she did just that.
Simply but nicely decorated and freshly painted, Shish-Kabob's is clean and inviting. Muted, soothing colors and a few well-placed paintings give the room a subtle, comfortable feel and shaded west windows let in natural light to help the bright, Mediterranean undertone.
Shadi is a bright spot in her own right, full of personality, hospitality and laughter and she and her husband make customers very comfortable and welcome. Shadi said she spends most of her time in the kitchen, but on two visits I had the pleasure of her company the majority of the time, as did the rest of her customers.
Her husband, Sourena, arrives in the late afternoon, after working a full-time job elsewhere. He helps cook, clean and close the restaurant. The couple jokes that he is her slave, but that sounds pretty saintly to me.
Both Shadi and Sourena are happy to describe any dish and act as menu tour guides. They'll tell you exactly what ingredients are in each dish, how it's prepared and what our western tastes might not appreciate. For instance, items like mast va khiar, a cucumber and yogurt soup with absolutely no sweetness to it whatsoever, she advises are best left to the native Greeks and Persians who were raised on it. The soup is quite sour and very astringent and one is probably well advised to heed her admonition in this case.
The food is delightfully flavorful, visually appealing and very fresh. Everything from gyro, shish kabob, braised lamb shank and ghormeh sabzi -- a great seven-herb stew with beef and beans that was fabulous, with many layers of flavor. Dark green from parsley and herbs, and nutty from Middle Eastern spices, this ain't your mamma's brown beef and potato stuff -- is stew of an entirely different ilk.
We started with a trio of appetizers starting with baba ganoush, a traditional Mediterranean dish made with grilled eggplant and pureed with spices. Shadi serves hers with a generous drizzle of herbed, (mainly minted) olive oil that you sort of stir in as you go, with some really fresh and very tasty pita bread. She wouldn't give me her source, but says she has it made locally especially for sure.
Next was a plate of falafel, a mixture of pureed garbanzo beans -- a staple in that part of the world -- and spices, which is then made into mini patties, coated in bread crumbs and quick fried. It's served with tzatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce for dipping. It was good, but I would have been happy if it had a bit more zip to it.
Our third appetizer was a dish called sambusa, sort of a Middle Eastern empanada. It was a very good pastry, filled with meat, potatoes, onions and herbs and then quickly fried. It was very tasty and an item that we both kept going back to.
My entrée was a dish called koobideh or chelo-kabob, which consists of pieces of expertly seasoned ground beef pressed into shish kabob-like strips. It has a flavor similar to the gyro except that it uses beef instead of lamb. The koobideh came with a huge pile of seasoned yellow rice, pita and a choice of side. I chose tabouli, a bulgar wheat, mint and parsley salad with lemon and olive oil. I have noticed before that true Middle Eastern cooks use a lot more parsley than Westerners seem to, creating what is almost a parsley salad with some bulgar wheat.
My friend Melanie had the combination plate. It allows the diner to pick any two from a list of chicken-kabob, chelo-kabob, gyro and traditional shish kabob. She went with the gyro and shish kabob.
Gyros are a classic Greek preparation. Ground meats, usually lamb, are packed with herbs and spices and stacked onto a vertical spit, which is then placed on a vertical rotisserie. As the huge mass of meat slowly turns, it cooks from the outside in. When an order comes in, the cook slices thin pieces from the outside, exposing the next layer.
And, incidentally, it is not pronounced juy-ro as often mispronounced, but rather is pronounced yee-ro.
My guest's second choice was a traditional shish kabob, which featured well-seasoned chunks of beef, grilled on a skewer and served with a pile of saffron rice. She chose a Persian salad for her side, which she said had a wonderful homemade dressing on it.
There's a shaker of sumac on every table at Shish-Kabob's. This seasoning is made from a ground red berry and is primarily used as a condiment. Sumac serves as sort of a souring agent, and is very good on grilled meats and rice. We have talked about dishes in the past that use za'atar as a seasoning in them and sumac is one of the primary components of that spice mix.
Shish-Kabob's menu has a nice selection of sandwiches as well and the restaurant easily accommodates vegetarians since a fair amount of cuisine from this part of the world are meatless by nature.
Lunch specials are reasonably priced at $7.99 for a choice of chicken-kabob, chelo-kabob, gyros or cabbage rolls, which are all served with rice, a fountain drink and a side item from a list as long as your arm. In fact, most of the menu is not much pricier than that. I have actually overheard several people tell Shadi that she needed to raise her prices. In fact, the most expensive item is the lamb shank, which comes in at $10.99 -- a steal. The next most expensive dish is only $8.99.
On an afternoon visit, I spoke with several customers who raved about Shish-Kabob's soups, lentils and other dishes, which are all made from scratch right there on premises.
A regular customer named Kim became my new best friend when she bragged on the sabzi, the stew I enjoyed on an earlier visit. She told me she has tried the majority of the dishes on the menu and never had one she didn't like -- a lot.
Shish-Kabob's desserts are a treat as well and a bit outside the box. There is, of course, the obligatory baklava, a classic Turkish and Greek dessert made with chopped nuts -- usually pistachios and walnuts -- sweetened with honey or syrup and layered between sheets of phyllo dough. Homemade, if you didn't guess, Persian ice cream -- unfortunately Shadi was out the night we wanted to try it --and rose cake. If you are not a baker or mixologist -- a few cocktails use it -- or from the Mediterranean, it's possible you are not familiar with rose water or rose syrup. It is a clear extract from the flower of the same name, very sweet and aromatic. Along with orange water, it is a common flavoring ingredient in Greece, Turkey, India and other countries in western Asia.
When asked what she would most like people to know about her restaurant, Shadi very simply and without hesitation answered, "That I cook with love, of course!" And you know what? She does.
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