Slow Shish Kebabs

While a few dishes shine, Shish Kebab House doesn't provide the best value

J.D. Fitzgerald

One of the most important things to do when trying new foods, whether they're from your own culture or a different one, is to keep an open mind. You can't take just one bite and immediately write it off because it's different, or because you're unused to the flavors, textures, composition of the dish.

I find that the general population has a pretty low comfort level with Middle Eastern cuisine, and while I enjoy it, I certainly do not profess to be an expert at it, and it just somehow doesn't make its way into the general breadth of my culinary rotation very frequently.

Shish Kebab House of Tucson has been in business for quite some time. tucked away in the corner of a shopping center on the north side of Broadway Boulevard between Craycroft and Wilmot roads that also houses a huge Peter Piper Pizza, Pier One Imports, and a handful of other small strip-mall businesses. The exterior is a bit dingy, and less than inviting, especially the teeny-tiny makeshift sidewalk patio out front (unless watching people haul kids in and out of cars into Peter Piper is your thing). The interior is also a bit dated, and it's not immediately evident whether you should seat yourself or wait to be seated (both happened to us, on two separate occasions).

The service was friendly enough, but not polished, and not always very timely. The entire front-of-house staff on both visits appeared to be relatively young and inexperienced, and easily distractible, though they were nice enough and seemed somewhat knowledgeable about the menu (with the exception of any alcohol offerings). The food was all good, but ... unremarkable — not bad, not excellent, just... there. I find that is often the case with restaurants that have a plethora (nearly a hundred, in this case) of different savory offerings on the menu.

The maza appetizer combination ($28.95), while a bit on the expensive side, is a good way to familiarize yourself with a variety of different flavors, without having to fully commit to any. You get to pick any five of the maza appetizers from the menu. We decided on the zatar pizza ($5.95 by itself), the meat pie ($5.95), the feta plate ($5.95), the grape leaves ($5.95) and the motabal ($6.50, an eggplant dip with tahini, lemon, garlic and garbanzo beans). The zatar pizza and the motabal were the most striking of the dishes, but the zatar, a Middle Eastern blend of spices – typically oregano, basil, thyme, and savory) — was applied very heavy-handedly on the pita bread, and the ensuing texture was quite gritty, and the flavor intensely strong. The motabal had a nice texture, but the delicate eggplant flavor was overwhelmed by the other ingredients, and it tasted more like a hummus than an eggplant dip. The other appetizers were edible, but unremarkable.

There are other, larger appetizers available, and on our second visit we chose the kibbeh nayaih ($14.95), a raw minced lamb dish that is mixed with cracked wheat and mint, then served with raw onions and olive oil, and of course, the ever-present pita bread. The mint was undetectable, and the lamb wasn’t seasoned at all, so the resulting dish was bland and uninspired. Entrees on both visits did not fare much better than the appetizers, though there was definitely more spice involved.

The Shish Kebab House Special ($15.95), a dish of spicy chopped chicken cooked in tomato sauce, served mixed in with a seasoned rice dotted with onions and bell peppers, was extremely heavy on the rice and light on veggies and meat, and the predominant flavor was spicy—and I enjoy spicy dishes, but they also need to be flavorful. The Super Combination 2 – oozie (choice of chicken, beef or lamb) with 2 kafta kebabs ($18.95), was also “just OK”. The beef oozie (a mix of rice, pine nuts, herbs and spices with meat), was underseasoned and again, extremely rice-heavy. The kafta kebabs, ground lamb and beef formed together onto a kebab, was very dry, though the seasoning was fine.

Shish Kebab House’s gyros did not impress either. The gyro plate ($9.95) is a generous enough portion, but the meat did not taste freshly carved, and the amount of feta cheese (two tiny squares) and kalamata olives (two olives) was just sad. The tzatziki sauce, however, was not only delicious, but plentiful. The shrimp “sizzling dish” ($16.95) was the best of all the entrees, and was almost fajita-like, served on a hot cast iron plate with sautéed peppers, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms. There were plenty of shrimp, probably about a dozen and a half, and they weren’t overcooked at all.

The experience at Shish Kebab House of Tucson was overall, underwhelming. Expect that your meal will take a significant amount of time (although you can call ahead, place your order and get it to-go, if you are on a time crunch), and that the service will match the food in its inconsistency and blasé.

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