Flavor Oasis

The Royal Kabob Makes Desert Living Seem Pleasurable Indeed

By Rebecca Cook

IT ISN'T MERE social custom that decrees the code of the desert is a generous and gracious hospitality. In the old days, people often had to depend, quite literally, upon the "kindness of strangers," individuals who would share their own meager supplies so that someone else might survive a cruel and unforgiving environment.

Whether the person you broke bread with was friend or foe didn't much matter. Karmic logic decreed that, sooner or later, you'd also need help, and so you gave willingly.

Chow Much of this rich and hospitable tradition continues today in several restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, where you quite often get the feeling you're an honored guest in a family home rather than a paying customer in a business venture.

The Royal Kabob, located in a little strip mall near Campbell Avenue and Glenn Street, is one of the newer oases in Tucson for classic Bedouin fare--and it's a fine addition to the local dining scene.

An animated burble of Arabic voices greeted me as I entered the Royal Kabob, reassuring me that what I was about to eat would at least be authentic, if nothing else.

The restaurant space also gives the sense of a genuine, if somewhat too comfortable, desert experience. The open chamber consists of tables lined up along the sides of the room, Persian-style rugs from end to end, and a tiered brass fountain with a soothing flow of water. Murals covering the entire wall and ceiling depict a giant desertarium. Midnight blue skies with twinkling stars, flowing waves of desert sand, a sparkling white city in the distance, a friendly family portrait and, of course, a camel or two, dot the landscape all around.

The task of ordering is made difficult by the mouth-watering aromas emanating from the kitchen--the temptation is great to order one of everything.

Since the smell of meats grilling for the various kabobs is the most seductive, we opt for an order of the royal kabob as well as some babagannouge (this is their spelling, incidentally, for all those accustomed to something different), a combination vegetarian platter and the gyro sandwich.

Babagannouge, a delectable, creamy paste of roasted eggplant and tahini (sesame butter) accented with the bite of fresh lemon and garlic, is the perfect appetizer when served with soft pita bread. The Royal Kabob's version of this eggplant specialty is tasty, if perhaps on the bland side. A tad more lemon and garlic would have improved the flavor.

With a restaurant named Royal Kabob, you'd expect to find several skewered wonders on the menu. Indeed, this is the case. Lamb (served cubed as well as ground, spiced and shaped into a mini meatloaf) and chicken are seasoned and grilled with various veggies and served atop a bed of saffron rice. An order of the royal kabob will give you an opportunity to sample each of these.

The chicken kabob, consisting of generous chunks of marinated and quick-grilled breast meat, was particularly yummy, retaining a remarkable moistness and flavor considering its seared condition. The lamb, cooked to a medium rare, was also quite good, though it didn't seem to have as rich a complex of spices as the chicken dish. The ground and seasoned lamb was decent, but, considering the vibrant flavors of the other two kabob choices, I'd recommend opting for these instead.

In addition to a sizable portion of meat and rice, the royal kabob comes with a salad, poker chip-sized falafel patties, stuffed grape leaves and hummus. Each side dish was serviceable, if not the most stunning examples of their kind to be found in the city. However, a veritable mountain of satisfying food for $9.95 is a pretty good deal, one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

The vegetarian combination plate ($5.75) included hummus (garbanzo bean dip), tabbouleh (a parsley and bulgar wheat salad), rice-stuffed grape leaves and falafel. Again, everything was tasty enough, with the tabbouleh--which was heavily parsleyed in this instance--the standout item on the platter.

The gyros, or shawerma, a combination of tender, thinly sliced, slow-roasted beef and lamb folded in to puffy pita stuffed with chopped tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce and a seasoned yogurt sauce, was a savory sandwich meal that sufficiently hit the spot.

Dessert specials vary daily, but there aren't too many occasions when baklava is not an option. Honeyed layers of buttered phyllo dough and ground nuts, accompanied by a steaming cup of dark, sweet Arabic coffee is an ideal way to close out a meal at the Royal Kabob.

Good food, pleasant atmosphere, warm and welcoming hosts. No mirages here--the Royal Kabob is the genuine article. TW

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