Afghani Delights

Some of Tucson's best food can be found at this little restaurant in Main Gate Square

The renowned Michelin Guide supposedly takes into account only the food in its restaurant ratings: "Michelin stars are awarded to restaurants offering the finest cooking, regardless of cuisine style. Stars represent only what is on the plate. They do not take into consideration interior decoration, service quality or table settings," says the Michelin Web site.

Well, should the Michelin Guide ever come to Tucson, Sultan Palace should be considered for a star, or maybe two. The food at this little Main Gate Square restaurant is that good--and since the Michelin Guide doesn't take that "other stuff" account, the restaurant's shortcomings shouldn't be an issue.

Of course, the Michelin Guide is unlikely to come to Tucson anytime soon--heck, the publishers only recently released guides for four U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas so far). However, Afghani food has found its way to Tucson, thanks to Sultan Palace, which opened in a humongous location on Drachman Street in 2005. I checked it out in 2006 ("Savor the Flavors," Aug. 17, 2006) and found delicious food, mediocre service and an almost-empty building. In 2007, the restaurant closed to move to the UA-area shopping center. The better part of a year passed before it finally reopened, in January.

So, what did we find at the new Sultan Palace? The answer: delicious food, mediocre service and an almost-empty building.

Actually, that's a bit unfair; the service in the small, square restaurant is much improved over what we found on Drachman. But where are the customers? On both of our recent visits, we were either the only people dining, or we shared the restaurant with one other party.

It seems the only area in which the new Sultan Palace location is inferior involves the new décor, which is inoffensive, but unspectacular. Most of the seating area is occupied by small, cramped tables with maroon conference-room chairs, but a handful of low-level booths, surrounded by curtains, occupy the southern wall. A low, decorated wall secludes the booths from the rest of the room, allowing diners to escape from the lunch-service steam tables, the TV and the other cafeteria-style trappings of the rest of room.

Still, you wouldn't come to Sultan Palace for the atmosphere; you'd come for the nuanced, unique and delicious food.

The dinner menu offers appetizers (like sambossas), soups, salads, a handful of stuffed wraps and all sorts of entrées and side dishes. We all decided to split the meat sambossas ($3), the pakawra (lightly battered potato, $2.50) and the shirazi salad ($2.95; includes diced tomatoes, sweet onions, cucumber and mint). Garrett ordered the chalaw (rice) combo ($8.95) that comes with two sides; he opted for the sabzi (spinach with lamb, $2.95 separately) and the qorme kofta (meatballs, $3.50). John basically did the same, ordering the qorme murgh (chicken in tomato sauce, $3.50 separately) and the banjan buranee (eggplant in tomato sauce with spices and a sour cream mix, $3.50 separately). Beth picked the lamb kabob with basmati rice ($12.95) along with a yogurt salad (with cucumber and mint, $2.95). Finally, I ordered the super combo ($29.95, easily enough food for two), which came with three kabobs--chicken, lamb and shish--along with flavored rice (with raisins and carrots), two sides, a salad and three pieces of mantu, a spiced meat ravioli/dumpling sort of thing. For my sides, I chose qorme murgh and the qorme kofta.

We wound up basically sharing everything--and had a fantastic time in the process. All of the food was delivered promptly--even if water and some of our drinks, such as my chai tea, were not delivered promptly. The sambossas were wonderful; the dough was flaky, and the meat was spiced just right, with the accompanying yogurt sauce serving as the ying to the spices' yang. The pakawra had a fantastic potato flavor and had the added benefit of being gluten-free, which meant Beth could enjoy them.

All of the sides were winners, save the sabzi, which had almost no lamb flavor and was disappointingly dull. The eggplant was a bit slimy, but the tomato sauce made it work. The meatballs had enough flavor to satisfy, and the chicken in tomato sauce also pleased our taste buds (although the chicken does come with bones around which one must navigate). The salads were all refreshing.

The kabobs were almost flawless. The lamb and chicken skewers were seasoned perfectly and surprisingly moist--it takes true skill not to dry out meat on a stick. Meanwhile, the shish kabob was one of two big hits of the night. The server explained that the house chutney (including just the right amount of cilantro) is mixed with the ground meat and spices, and the amount of nuance packed into these cigar-shaped delights is amazing. The second hit: the mantu, nicely seasoned ground-beef dumplings with a creamy sauce that reminded me a bit of stroganoff. On my next dinner visit to Sultan Palace, I'll make mantu my meal. Yum.

We were so stuffed that we couldn't possibly try any of Sultan Palace's handful of dessert offerings, although some of them--especially the baklava--looked good on paper.

On our lunch visit, John and I found food that was just as delicious, although some of the textures were thrown off a bit because of the steam tables. Diners can make their own meal from various "sides" ($1.35 to $3.50) or pick kabobs ($7.95 to $8.95) or sandwiches ($4.35 to $4.75); on weekends, diners can fit whatever they choose on a plate for $8. On the day John and I visited, Sultan Palace was offering a special we couldn't refuse: a side, a rice and some shish for $8. The shish was every bit as delicious as before, though it was much drier. My green beans in spiced tomato sauce were splendid, as was my rice prepared in lamb broth and mung beans. John gave the sabzi another shot--and that second chance paid off, as the dish was much tastier this time around. His spiced rice was also enjoyable, as was the meat sambossa ($1.50) that we just had to split, because they were so good during our dinner visit.

Trust me, folks: Sultan Palace offers some of the best food in Tucson. The décor and the service aren't as good compared to other places--but, according to the Michelin Guide, that stuff doesn't matter, anyway. So give Sultan Palace a shot.