Savor the Flavors

'Royal kabob cuisine' is a revelation at Sultan Palace

After my dinner at Sultan Palace, my knees hurt. But my stomach and taste buds were happy enough to make up for that joint pain.

Sultan Palace is a Tucson dining treasure, hidden in plain view--to be precise, hidden in a former Coco's just off Drachman Circle. Offering "royal kabob cuisine," the restaurant serves the best Middle Eastern/Indian-like food (Afghani, in this case) I've had in Tucson. But sadly, the place on our Friday visit was largely unoccupied.

Garrett and I were joined by John and Beth, good friends who've eaten at Sultan Palace a number of times. Going in, they said to expect fantastic food and lackadaisical service, and that's just what we got.

We were given the option of sitting in a regular, Western-style booth, or sitting at a low-to-the-floor table, cross-legged. We chose the low table, knees be damned! About four other tables were occupied, leaving the vast majority of the restaurant--including the entire front area facing Drachman--empty. The place is nice and clean, with some impressive decorating touches--for example, the low tables have canopies above them made of see-through gold or maroon fabric.

The menu features three appetizers, two soups, several salads, a bunch of entrées (including kabobs and stuffed wraps) and sides, along with some combination platters. We decided to split the meat sambossas ($3.50) as a group, and we all got salads, three of us getting the shiraz salad ($2.95), and Garrett getting the sultan's special salad ($4.95). Garrett ordered the kofta chalaw (Afghan meatballs with basmati rice, $10.95); it came with a side dish, and Garrett picked the gullpi (cauliflower in tomato sauce, $2.50 separately). Beth got the chalaw, basmati rice with two side dishes ($9.95); she picked the qorm-e-gosht (lamb in tomato sauce, $3.50 separately) and the sabzi (spinach cooked with lamb, garlic, spices and tomato sauce, $2.95 separately). John picked the qabli palaw (flavored rice with a lamb chunk, carrots and raisins, $12.95); that also came with a side, and John decided on the eggplant ($2.95 separately). Finally, I ordered the lamb kabob (with basmati rice, $13.95) and a side of the qorm-e-murgh (chicken in tomato sauce, $3.50).

After a brief wait, our server brought us the sambossas, and they were a revelation: They were the best samosas/sambossas I have ever tasted. The two pies--egg roll-style skin stuffed with spiced ground beef--were amazing and packed with flavor. They came with a sweet and spicy yogurt sauce that brought out the various nuances. They were so good that we briefly debated getting another order before wisely deciding against it; we had a lot of food coming.

But there would be a bit of a wait for that food. Sultan Palace's biggest weakness is its service. It's not horrendous; it's just slightly slow and not detail-oriented. For example, when our server brought the sambossas, she didn't bring us plates to put them on. A place setting was missing from our table, and we had to ask for another. And if we wanted our water glasses refilled, we had to ask.

But back to the good stuff: the food. Our salads were delightfully different. Beth, John and I all relished our shiraz salads, which came with sweet onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and mint, all chopped up, with a vinegary dressing. There was no lettuce, so the salad had the appearance of a finely chopped pico de gallo, yet it was refreshing and filling. Garrett's sultan's special salad looked more like, well, a salad: a lettuce base was topped with cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, cheese, olives and green peppers, with a cilantro-packed dressing finishing it off. It, too, was tasty.

Shortly after the salads were finished, our main courses arrived (although the salad and appetizer dishes hadn't been cleared yet, leading to a minor degree of chaos). Among all the entrées and side dishes, there was not a dud in the bunch.

Garrett's meatballs, swimming in a red sauce, were succulent (although they weren't the most flavorful meatballs I've ever tasted), and the sauce was sweet with a nice kick; it tasted kind of like a really good stuffed cabbage dish, without the cabbage. His cauliflower was good, but the sauce dominated the complex flavor. Beth's lamb in tomato sauce was excellent, although some lamb chunks were more tender than others; her spinach, however, was incredible. It was spicy with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste--I'd never experienced a spinach dish like this before.

John's rice-surrounded lamb came falling off the bone, and he thought the raisins added a nice sweetness to the dish. His eggplant side was so sweet and tasty that it could have almost passed as a dessert. And finally, my kabobs were to die for. The chunks of lamb were marinated to the perfect point where the spices complemented, not overwhelmed, the meat's flavor. The lamb pieces on the ends of the two skewers were a little drier than I'd prefer, but the rest were juicy and delightful. My chicken in tomato sauce was probably the weakest dish, due to an overabundance of oily chicken fat swimming with the sauce, but the stuff still tasted great. Go figure.

Because of the slow service, we didn't have time for dessert (which was disappointing, because baklava, one of the offerings, is a personal favorite). Also, our legs were sore from the cross-legged seating, and it was time to move.

Yes, the service could improve, but trust me: This is a minor complaint, considering how good and unique the food at Sultan Palace is. Imagine taking the best of Middle Eastern food and the best of Indian food, and you'll get a sense of what you're missing. So stop missing it, Tucson--and go give Sultan Palace some much-deserved business.

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