A Taste of Cairo

Luxor Café is splendid for delicious, inexpensive Egyptian food--or maybe just coffee and a hookah

Luxor. Now there's a name to conjure with--colossal, mysterious, elegant and, due to a linguistic coincidence, luxurious. Luxor Café doesn't manage to quite embody all of that--how monumental can you be in a strip mall on North Campbell Avenue?--but it actually does deliver on some of the exoticism and panache of its name.

I visited on a quiet Monday night with four old friends devoted to food: Mike and Jeanne and Pete and Joan. We were met at the door by a bouncy, pretty young woman who let us choose our table--the fascinating cushioned Middle Eastern-style seating area off to one side is reserved for hookah-smoking and coffee-drinking. (Luxor, by the way, is in the space that used to be Aladdin.)

After getting the obligatory discussion of the latest episode of The Sopranos out of the way, we began trying to decide what to eat. It wasn't easy: The menu is both interesting and extensive. The Luxor appetizer sampler ($9.95)--including hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouli, falafel, dolmas and kibbeh (a big fried dumpling filled with spiced meat), plus tahini sauce and pita--was the obvious choice for starters, and we bought time by ordering it first.

It turned out to be beautiful and loaded with good things. We especially liked the kibbeh, because, really, is there anything better than a food item you've never even heard of before? And filled dumplings, of all nations and creeds, are the most tempting of tidbits; deep-fried, they're just plain wicked. Crisp on the outside, complicated, savory and labor-intensive on the inside, they're the ultimate glam foods.

According to Wikipedia, kibbeh is actually Turkish, so, like many other dishes on Luxor's menu, it's not strictly Egyptian: Tabouli, for example, originated in Lebanon and Syria, and dolmas are Greek. But who cares? All desert food tastes right in Tucson, especially when the heat sets in.

We did our damnedest to span the menu. Pete had the marinated, broiled lamb shank with vegetables and tomato sauce ($10.95); Joan went for the kafta kabob (ground beef mixed with spices, onions and parsley, skewered and broiled, $9.95); Jeanne had the shawerma chicken pita wrap ($4.95); Mike, the gyro plate ($8.95); and I ordered koshari, a traditional mixture of rice, pasta, lentils, garbanzos and fried onions with a spicy tomato sauce on the side ($5.95). We shared a Greek salad ($6.45).

Dinner came as it was ready, one dish at a time, so everybody's food was smoking hot, and we got to ogle and taste each other's choices. Jeanne's chicken shawerma wrap could have used more sauce--but that was about the only complaint. Mike, who's a big gyros guy, found Luxor's version excellent. Pete's lamb was a standout, and Joan's kafta kabob, which she'd ordered because it was unfamiliar, was tasty and surprisingly juicy. I loved the wholesome, filling koshari with its crown of crispy fried onion shreds. Pete, who's a chef, had tried it on a previous visit and loved it, too. We agreed that we liked its homely, plain-food goodness. Mostly, what you get in ethnic restaurants is festival food: expensive, fussy dishes that the folks back home only have on special occasions; sometimes, you want the kind of thing people eat every day. As Pete said, the koshari made you feel as if you were inside a story by Naguib Mahfouz, eating in a bar in a Cairo alley.

The entrées came with hummus, heaps of rice and a rather curious, if perfectly nice, mixture of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. (Broccoli on the Nile? On the other hand, the traditional green of Egypt, molokhiyya, doesn't even have an English name. It can't be easy to come by in Tucson.) The Greek salad was huge, fresh and nicely trimmed with tiny olives and good-quality feta.

Mike's dessert was a surprise: He thought he ordered the first baklava our server named, but ended up with knafeh nabulseya ($4.50), a luridly tinted concoction of mild cheese, shredded filo and rosewater that we found more intriguing than appealing. I, however, scored the pistachio baklava (95 cents), which we all agreed was among the best we'd ever tasted--buttery, just sweet enough and stuffed with fat, sweet pistachios.

As the evening wore on, the place began to perk up as college girls, clearly regulars, filled the back booths, spreading out books and treating the space as a sort of clubhouse, and a group of men settled down on the narrow patio in front with a pot of espresso. (Luxor Café serves dinner until 9 every night; the hookah lounge is open until 1 a.m. most nights, and until 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.)

With its young, friendly staff, terrific food, late hours, tasty Middle Eastern background music and comfortably exotic atmosphere, it looks like a great place to hang, and a cheap one: The five of us ate extremely well for less than $100, including tip.

We'll be back.

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