Mid-East Feasts

Tucson Is Blessed With Three New Purveyors Of Cuisine Fit For A Potentate.

By Rebecca Cook

MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE is enjoying a significant renaissance in and around the University of Arizona campus.

Long popular with a select audience of émigrés, non-meat eaters and '60s-styled hippies, Middle Eastern cooking has recently attained a substantially broad-based appeal, primarily due to its emphasis on simple, fresh and natural ingredients, which are ideal for today's heightened sense of health consciousness.

Chow Middle Eastern cooking seems to have it all: Vegetarians thrill to the plethora of offerings made without a trace of animal fat, while steadfast carnivores can gnaw lustily on a variety of skewered, grilled meats. The incorporation of fresh vegetables and herbs, whole grains, exotic spices and mono-saturate olive oil make this ethnic cuisine the epitome of healthy dining. Protein, fiber and taste literally collide in a whorl of nutritious goodness.

Three new Middle Eastern restaurants--Andalus Restaurant, Ali Baba Restaurant & Market, and Famous Pita--are currently inundating the Tucson market with a desert storm of hummus, falafel and shish kabob.

With its daily selection of traditional Lebanese fare, Andalus shines brightly amid the cluster of other small businesses on University Boulevard, just a stone's throw from the UA's main gate. Although Andalus has a standing menu, it was our experience that not every item is available every day. The payoff is that occasionally wonderful little surprises not listed on the menu make guest appearances.

So, instead of the seasoned baba ghanoush eggplant puree we were craving, we were treated to a few pocket pastries, baked until golden and filled with feta cheese, herbs and chopped spinach. Our disappointment over the absence of eggplant dip was quickly forgotten once we indulged in the featured "pies," a delicacy not unlike a vegetable-stuffed empanada. The faint hint of nutmeg and a dash of fresh oregano elevated these appetizers to main-course status. Throw in a small serving of Andalus' artichoke salad with its pungent garlic and fresh ground pepper, and you'd easily have the makings of a complete meal.

The falafel here was distinguished by the addition of hummus as well as lettuce, chopped tomato, red onion and, of course, button-sized patties of ground garbanzo beans and seasonings. Enhancing the ensemble was an extraordinary puff of pita bread--light, fluffy and warmed in a special device right before our eyes.

Andalus' pita is wrapped around the contents of the sandwich rather than halved, split and stuffed. The result is somewhat messier, but eminently more satisfying. The falafel is nicely crisped and brown, aromatically seasoned with onion, fresh parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander. The hummus projects a distinct tahini-sesame flavor with a faint tang of fresh lemon for good measure, making this the ultimate condiment for the sandwich.

The combo shawerma platter consisted of tender, slow-roasted pieces of chicken and beef marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Served over a bed saffron rice (or a nest of French fries--an apparent nod to the dubious taste preferences of many American college students) and combined with an aioli-type garlic sauce, the dish was wonderfully savory.

Just up the road from Andalus, on East Speedway, is Ali Baba Restaurant & Market, which also specializes in Middle Eastern food. As the name implies, this wonderful business will sell you all the ingredients you need to recreate the cuisine at home. Still in the process of setting up shop, Ali Baba is a bit stark in appearance at the moment. Nevertheless, it's fun to amble up and down the market aisles, perusing shelves laden with spices, rose water, tea sets and extra-virgin olive oil. Refrigerated cabinets showcase brined olives, ground lamb and fresh pita.

Ali Baba's food is made to order while you wait, which means that if your interest is carry-out, you'd better call in your order ahead of time (unless you need to do some shopping).

Baba ghanoush was plentiful at Ali Baba, and well worth the wait--mashed thoroughly, but not pureed into an unappetizing pulp. We could still detect bits of eggplant, creamily seasoned with sesame butter, lemon juice and fresh garlic, and begging to be scooped up with a handful of pita bread. This is a grand dip, appropriately fit for potentate or starving college student alike.

Of the grilled meats, chicken appears to be the specialty of the house. Whereas the beef and lamb dishes seemed a bit too chewy or excessively salted, the chicken was nicely browned, tender, moist and expertly flavored with a well-balanced marinade of vinegar, garlic and oil. Particularly pleasing was the shish tawook, niblets of chicken served over rice and drizzled with a buttery tahini sauce.

Ali Baba wins the prize for the best selection of Middle Eastern desserts, all of them visible through the glassed-in pastry counter near the cash register. Gazing at these delights, it soon becomes obvious that baklava is but the tip of the iceberg. You'll also find birds' nest (crispy layers of baked filo dough filled with whole pistachios), fingers (flaky filo dough cigar-rolled around sweetened, ground cashews), ballourie (lightly baked and shredded filo, with chopped pistachios kissed with a trace of rose water) and something called Turkish delight (a dried fruit confection permeated with chopped nuts and rolled in powdered sugar. If you have a hankering for something sweet, you'll be thoroughly enamored with Ali Baba's pastry display.

My only complaint is that there was no Turkish coffee on the menu to wash this sweet stuff down, a lamentable omission.

In terms of sheer abundance of food, Famous Pita on North Campbell Avenue may constitute the best deal in town. To account for variable appetites, the restaurant provides patrons with two dining options: order individual items off the menu, or pay one sum for an all-you-can-eat buffet. Vegetarians can fill their plates again and again for just $5.99, whereas for two bucks more you can nibble away on chicken or beef to your heart's content.

Owner Sam Darwish is a hoot behind the buffet counter, constantly encouraging his guests to try this or that dish and emphasizing his suggestions by popping the food in question expertly into your mouth as you open it in reply.

Darwish is particularly proud of his highly spiced marble-sized falafel, which can be piled onto any buffet platter. Other buffet selections include hummus; several salads (including the fresh parsley and cracked-wheat tabbouleh; and fattouche, which features chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, parsley and diced pita bread in a garlic-spiced yogurt dressing); spicy, stuffed grape leaves; marinated red peppers; Middle Eastern pickles and a variety of grilled vegetables, such as cauliflower, potatoes and zucchini. Those new to Middle Eastern cuisine could do no better than to start their apprenticeship at Famous Pita, where one can easily try a little bit of everything.

Your meat of choice is ordered separately and arrives grilled and served atop a mound of steamed saffron rice. The chicken kabob, bite-sized morsels of tender, marinated meat coupled with grilled onion and green bell pepper, was tender and flavorful, spiked with just a hint of lemon and garlic.

When it comes to Middle Eastern food, Tucson is richly endowed. Where to go? It all depends on what you're looking for, I guess. If you happen to be a UA student, you won't have to stray too far.

Andalus Restaurant. 923 E. University Blvd. 388-9808. Open 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. No alcohol. V, MC. Menu items: $2.50-$6.99.

Ali Baba Restaurant & Market. 2545 E. Speedway Blvd., Suite No. 125. 319-2559. Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. No alcohol. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1.99-$6.95.

Famous Pita. 2790 N. Campbell Ave. 795-6303. Open 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. No alcohol. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1.49-$7.99. TW

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