We’ve all read the distressing statistics about failure rates for new restaurants. According to some studies, more than half of all eateries opened perish within three years. On the other hand, often repeated claims of 90% failure are most likely exaggerated. Regardless of the exact numbers, five years of operation is a good sign that a restaurant has attracted a loyal clientele and developed some staying power. In Downtown Tempe, just a block from the Mill Avenue / Third Street Station, MedFresh Grill has just turned five.
|exterior from Mill|
With that milestone, MedFresh not only has the distinction of being one of the more stable restaurants in the ever-changing Mill Avenue landscape, but also stands out as one of the few local places to serve the cuisine of Turkey, so often under-appreciated in the United States. In fact, since the demise of Efes in southern Tempe, MedFresh may be the only full-fledged Turkish restaurant in the Phoenix Metro Area. One of the three brothers who owns MedFresh once ran the kitchen at Efes.
|exterior from the courtyard|
Since Turkish food is still unfamiliar to so many customers, MedFresh uses a sort of dual approach designed to attract novices during lunch and reward aficionados in the evening. By day, MedFresh operates almost as a fast food restaurant. Customers order at the counter, and the menu displayed overhead uses the Greek term “gyros” for meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie. At dinner, however, servers come to the tables, customers order from printed menus, and the Turkish term “doner” is used to describe the chicken and the red meat spinning on spits.
|chicken kabab plate|
Whether one calls it “doner,” “gyro,” or “shawarma,” these basic meat preparations are both worth enjoying, either in a pita sandwich with fries on the side or on a plate with fluffy yellow rice, creamy hummus, and a green salad. They’re just the starting points, however, is a menu based heavily on kabobs. While the doner meat mixes beef and lamb, each one is available separately on skewers. Chicken kabobs here have a slight char on the outside but are unusually moist and flavorful due to generous marination. Always ask for the “secret red sauce” on the side.
|chicken doner plate|
Of course, if you’ve been going to MedFresh at all during its first five years, then you may have already enjoyed all the doner and kabob entrees more times than you can remember. With that in mind, maybe it’s time during the next five years to explore some of the less familiar items on the menu, especially during dinner hours when some of the items at the upper end of the restaurant’s relatively modest price range (around $15) can be savored and shared. While meats on a skewer can be a simple pleasure, there is more complexity to Turkish cooking.
For those who favor red meat, the iskender kabob and the beyti kabob are both territory worthy of exploration. The former features sliced doner meat mixed with pieces of pita bread, adorned with a few grilled vegetables, and then topped with a mixture of two sauces, one zesty and based on tomato and the other tangy and based on yogurt. The latter uses ground adana meat wrapped in lavash and coated with the same mixture of two sauces. The final result comes close to Turkish enchiladas. Both are bold revisions to basic meat dishes.
With all the emphasis on meat kabobs, it’s easy to forget that Turkey has an extensive coastline. The one seafood dish here is a simple grilled fish platter. The fish used here has mild, white flesh. It’s probably domestically farmed tilapia rather than anything exotic from the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it’s nicely grilled and dusted with a peppery seasoning. The generous serving holds its own with rice, pita, salad, tzatziki, or secret red sauce just as well as the beef, lamb, and chicken selections.
The meatless entree at MedFresh has always been the falafel, a reasonably good version with a slightly smoky flavor. Beyond the chick pea patties, MedFresh has half a dozen salads on the menu. Some like tabouleh are familiar Middle Eastern favorites. Others, like the vibrant mint salad, and not as common. All the salads pair well with bowl of the restaurant’s lentil soup, a smooth, lemony and peppery version of moderate viscosity.
For dessert, there are two pastries available: baklava, an excellent buttery version of the classic, and revani, a semolina cake in sweet syrup. Drinks include fountain sodas, freshly brewed iced tea, bottled juices, fruit smoothies, yogurt drinks, high-octane Turkish coffee, and a limited selection of beer and wine. A bottle or two of Efes Pilsener is a straightforward accompaniment to the most flavorful entrees on the menu. The only challenge is in figuring out what to order since the drink cooler is so far behind the counter as to make reading labels difficult.
The decor remains simple and effective. There are colorful sconces, tourist posters, and a few small kilims, or Turkish rugs, along the walls. A patio facing Mill provides a pleasant outdoor dining environment. With the light rail construction and sewer replacement that plagued Mill years ago when MedFresh first opened now long complete, it’s good to see the restaurant has persisted, making some changes along the way by dropping late night hours and adding full service at dinner, but making it to age five with food as “MedFresh” as it was back in 2007.
414 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281