Thursday, January 18, 2007

Review: Flaming Kabob Cuisine, Mesa AZ

One thing that a great many Phoenicians bemoan is the endless strip malls filled with nothing but dismal chain restaurant fare as far as the eye can see. It certainly does seem like shopping centers pop up in the blink of an eye, tempting Chowhounds valleywide with new spaces that might hold something exciting and new. Alas, such is rarely the case. Take the Mesa Grand shopping center over on Stapley in between Baseline and the Superstition freeway. Within two minutes' walking distance of each other are Panda Express, Cold Stone Creamery, Rubio's, Souper Salad, a cheesesteak chain, Chili's, Texas Roadhouse, Romano's Macaroni Grill, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Old Country Buffet, Pizzeria Uno, Charleston's, Fatburger, El Paso BBQ Company, and I'm sure there are more that I missed, all on a single corner. While I will admit that I get the occasional craving for some of these, for the most part they serve up boring, industrial fare that you can get at similar shopping centers just a few miles down the road. Maybe it's not exactly the same restaurants, but it's the same old song nonetheless.

Enter the ravages of time. Inevitably, a few of these national operations fall by the wayside. Maybe the franchisor had trouble. Or it could be that the people in the area just couldn't be convinced that this kind of restaurant is a good idea. For whatever the reason, the 5 & Diner location a mile down Baseline just a little east of Gilbert Road closed up shop. For a good long time, the building sat empty, waiting for a new tenant. Then one day, a Middle Eastern restaurant called Flaming Kabob Cuisine opened in the space of the old diner.

My friend Bellana and I walked into the old diner, wondering what changes they made to give it a better thematic flavor. They did... nothing. Well, almost nothing. Where condiments once stood above the expo line, there now was a wide variety of hookahs and flavored tobacco. The miniature jukeboxes disappeared from the tables, replaced by upbeat Middle Eastern dance music playing on the sound system. Any art on the walls had vanished, save two small framed automobile advertisements in the men's restroom (it looks like they were glued down very firmly indeed). It looked like you'd expect a 5 & Diner to look before the decorators came in, with red walls, glittery red and silver naugahyde booths, and glossy black ceiling fans.

We looked over the menu, trying to figure out what to try, when I spied the Combo for Two on the menu. It looked like a good way to sample most of the menu without taking home food for three days; on it were chicken and lamb kebab, chicken shawarma, shish kefta, kibbeh, falafel, dolmades, rice, green salad, and hummus, all for $22.99. We ordered that, along with a couple of cups of Chicken Lemon Rice soup ($1.99 each). The soup arrived from the kitchen quickly. We took a moment to enjoy the aroma wafting from the soup, and dove in. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't terrific either. Both Bellana and I felt that the seasonings could have used some adjustment, maybe a little paprika would give it the little nudge that it seemed to miss. However, that was the last of my worries about the food. The hummus at Flaming Kabob is serious stuff, silky smooth, loaded with a perfect balance of garlic and lemon. It's almost worth the drive out there just for the hummus. Almost. The staff was quick to bring more pita when we ran out; I felt like it would have been nice to get a bit more at the start, but at the same time bringing more as necessary keeps the warm pita from getting cold. As we almost finished the hummus, our salad arrived. It was plenty of romaine lettuce chopped into nice small pieces (Note to other restaurateurs out there: Salad is not meant to be eaten with a knife! For Pete's sake, would you mind cutting the lettuce into manageable bites?), accented with bits of tomato and cucumber. The house dressing tossed on the salad was incredible, a refreshing, lemony vinaigrette with plenty of herbs.

Before too long, the main course plate came. What a feast! One thing that I've noticed with a great number of ethnic restaurants is that they will tone down the vibrant flavors of home for a cautious American audience. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Everything spoke of plenty of seasoning. The kebab, sadly, was not flaming as one would surmise by the name of the restaurant, but it did show evidence of being cooked by some very deft flame work. Both the chicken and the lamb had a very nice crust develop on the outside, with the center of each bit of meat on the sticks succulent and flavorful. The stuffed grape leaves were the surprise smash hit for us. They were assertively seasoned, filled with rice and meat, and were definitely way more than the sum of their parts.

While I wouldn't take people there for the atmophere (c'mon guys, even a couple of travel posters would make a world of difference!), I'll certainly be back time and again to Flaming Kabob for the food. I certainly feel like I got my money's worth thanks to some of the best Middle Eastern food in the farther reaches of the East Valley. OK, so it's likely some of the only Middle Eastern food to be found out that way, but still, it's great stuff.

Flaming Kabob Cuisine
2252 E Baseline Rd
Mesa, AZ
NW Corner of Baseline and Gilbert, facing Baseline

Open For: Lunch, Dinner
Food: 5 (absolutely delicious; ardent fans of Middle Eastern cuisine may find the menu a bit pedestrian for their taste though)
Service: 3 (Friendly, eager to please; I think our waitress was a little green, but it added to the mom-n-pop charm)
Atmosphere: 1 (It would be nice if the interior didn't still scream 5 & Diner)
Value: 4 (Very satisfied with the food)
Kid Friendly? 3 (limited American kids' menu; more adventuresome wee ones should be able to order small bites off the regular menu or share one of the platters with ease, though)
Price: 1-2 (mostly inexpensive)
Overall: 4 (I liked it quite a bit)