Kebabs for grown-ups, burgers for kids
On a busy corner in Lexington, with plenty of little storefront businesses, the year-old Sizzling House of Kabab could easily go unnoticed. Some house specialties are pictured in the window, but the photographs don’t hint at what’s going on at this modest place: beautifully prepared kebabs and sandwiches served by a gracious, careful staff. Alas, there’s not a single place to sit. It’s entirely take-out.
At first, we can’t figure out what the cuisine is. There are kebabs, of course, and some Middle Eastern classics, such as baba ghanouj and hummus, then “vegi teriyaki” under the vegetarian heading. Along with tempting falafel and shawarma are these sandwiches: barbecued chicken, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Sounds a lot like a cuisine that’s been diluted and Americanized. In fact, the food is Persian, there are some Turkish dishes because owner Farhad Salemi’s mother is a Turkish, a native of Azerbaijan, and there are other Middle Eastern and Mediteerranean specialties. All the meat is halal.
The hamburgers baffle me until I overhear a conversation between a gentleman in a jellaba ordering several burgers and the counterman. “Would you like sauce with them?” asks the affable worker.
“I don’t think so,” replies the man. “You know how kids are.”
Burgers for kids. Fair enough. As a Bangledeshi restaurateur explained to me recently, “You want the kids to eat with you, so you have something on the menu for them.”
Everyone else, stick to wraps and kebabs, particularly two skewers of succulent ground chicken ($7.99 plate, $6.95 wrap), which come on a bed of perfectly cooked white rice, some grains bright yellow with saffron, garnished with tabbouleh, hummus, and a whole roasted tomato. Even though you get this in a styrofoam container, each item is laid out with great care. As with all Persian cooks, Salemi instinctively understands how to make food taste good, and how to present it like artwork.
Beef and chicken kebab ($11.95) offers a skewer of each, the beef pleasantly chewy. The meat is particularly good wrapped in pita as shawarma ($6.95) with lots of crisp vegetables, tahini, and hummus. If you watch shawarma makers in the Middle East, they dab the bread with the fat that collects in the bottom of the vertical spit. “I don’t put any fat in it,” says Salemi, who cooks meat to order. “It’s the leanest shawarma you’ll find.”
Lamb kebab ($11.95 plate, $9.95 wrap) is made with very flavorful meat, more lamby than usual, but a little dry.
Lentil soup ($3.75) doesn’t look like much (what lentil soup does?), but the taste is wonderful, the same with barley soup ($3.95), which is pale and doesn’t hint at the great chickeny flavor in this bowl. Hummus ($3.95) and baba ghanouj ($4.65) are both exemplary versions, tabbouleh ($3.95) is light with bulgur and heavy with finely chopped vegetables. A memorable dish is mirzaghasemi ($4.65), a thick persimmon-colored spread of smoky eggplant pureed with garlic and tomato sauce. “This is what eggplant is supposed to taste like,” announces a friend. Mirzaghasemi is specialty of northern Iran, where Salemi’s father comes from.
The restaurateur says that because the kitchen is small and he can’t warm pita, he doesn’t automatically give bread with meals, but you can order it (65 cents a round).
Desserts include thick baklava ($2.50), two large triangles in one serving, nutty pastries that aren’t too sweet, and little sugar cookie sandwiches with jam and a heavy dusting of confectioners’ sugar (75 cents each), which are.
The Sizzling menu shows only the English translated names of these ancient Persian dishes, which were once served at court. That accounts for the intricate sides and rices in the cuisine. But this isn’t Americanized food. It’s an authentic menu with burgers and hot dogs. After all, you do want the kids to eat with you.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.