Any Arizonan knows that strip malls can be full of surprises. After all, it seems a good portion of the real estate that's affordable, in decent condition and available to small businesses exists in such a setting. That's why you never want to judge a restaurant just on location alone.
Jasmine, a Middle Eastern market and restaurant off of Oracle Road, isn't as big as others in town, with just about seven tables and three aisles of groceries. In the corner space of a strip mall that also houses local sushi favorite Samurai, it seems the spot is poised to impress, considering the neighbors.
But we all know looks can still be deceiving. Instead, it seems first impressions are more easily and quickly made for eateries through the old olfactory sense. There's nothing quite as exciting as stepping into a restaurant for the first time and getting hit with a wall of intoxicating smells coming from the kitchen. Unfortunately, Jasmine's first scent impression fell a little flat, proving an omen for the food to come.
Visually, it's certainly a no-frills joint with two display cases: one for the butcher and one for the baker. But, family owned and operated, the business is endearing in other ways—including the use of the restaurant's patron Disney princess on the menu (of which I'm not sure the legality). With a relatively large menu and small staff, the friendly, helpful service can run a little on the slow side, especially if there are delivery, pickup or catering orders on deck, so plan to take some time if you're not taking out.
To drink, you'll find bottles and cans of soda and juice, but if you want water, you're going to have to buy a bottle. While the menu promises fresh juices and lemonade with rose water, the fountain was broken on my visits so the restaurant had only the mango juice ($2.99) on hand at the time. Though sweet and filled with bits of mango, the juice seemed more likely from a can or bottle than fresh as advertised.
Starters are much of what you'd expect at a casual Middle Eastern restaurant-slash-market: hummus, tabulla (also spelled tabbouleh), fatoosh salad, falafel, tzatziki and baba ghanouge. The lebna ($3.99) certainly delivers on lebna itself (think yogurt-cream cheese hybrid), but adding za'tar as seasoning did little to enhance the dish. Plus, unlike the menu's photos, every meaty pit-filled olive garnish pictured was replaced with sliced black olives—the likes of which you'd find at any lackluster pizza joint. Luckily the hummus ($3.99), which came topped with whole garbanzos and no olives at all, was more satisfying, with a smooth but not too smooth texture and a subtle hint of garlic and tahini.
While the kebe ($4.99), which is kind of like a meat-filled croquette, was a bit more aromatic, the bland rice dough muted the seasoned meat and veggies inside. Even the fatoosh salad ($4.99) fell more than a little flat, being mostly flavorless lettuce embellished by small squares of pita chips.
One of the main attractions to Jasmine is the extremely affordable prices, though, which are most evident in the restaurant's selection of wraps and sandwiches. Depending on the bread you choose, which could be pita, lavash (Iraqi flatbread) or a wrap, falafel, shawarma or kabob filled sandwiches range from just $2.99 to $7.99. Jasmine also offers chicken or beef burgers with fries for $6.99.
Entrees are also easy on the wallet with most dishes priced at $9.99, and $13.99 serving as the ceiling. It's in the entrees you'll find the other area in which Jasmine shines—and that's high-quality meat. With the selection of halal meats, the lamb in the lamb tekka, the beef in the shawarma and spicy Persian kabob and the chicken in the shish tawook all don't need much to do the trick.
However, unfortunately for the meat abstaining, non-meat options likely won't win you over. The falafel ($7.99 for a plate) was near flavorless and the trio of manakeesh options ($6.99) came on part-baked, doughy pita with toppings like cheese (which seemed like pre-shredded mozzarella) and sliced black olives, lebna with more black olives and a dry thyme spread. I wish I had better news here, but even the saffron rice was a little, well, saffronless.
Jasmine also offers four Middle Eastern inspired pizza options ($11-$13) and large family meal options for groups of three or more.
As with the appetizers and entrees, even the baklava at Jasmine sang a single note. While the grocery racks were stocked with fragrant cardamom pods, no such flavor was found in the pastry itself. While the baklava was flaky in all the right ways, it just didn't have any depth in flavor, from cardamom or cinnamon or anything, to keep it interesting. Truth be told, the just-sweet treat kind of gave me a sugar-induced stomachache—maybe consider splitting one with a friend if you opt for dessert.
Overall, it seems Jasmine tones down its spices, though for whom, I do not know. Best to stick to offerings off the grill, here, because even without more pronounced spicing, the cook on the meat is executed well enough that it can shine on its own.