With smoking now out of the question in most workplaces and public accommodations, the latest place to become 100% smoke free is Arizona State University. An across-the-board ban, which includes outdoor space, is scheduled to go into effect this summer. At the same time, hookah, a social experience centered around a pipe full of flavored tobacco, seems to have become more popular around the university’s main campus. One nearby restaurant, Cafe Istanbul, has transformed itself from a combination eatery and grocery to a restaurant with a hookah patio and shop.
The bad news is that hookah smoke can be as harmful as regular cigarette smoke. The good news is that the consumption of it is limited to the outdoor dining area. The main dining room is free of tobacco, and the quality of the food doesn’t seem to have suffered from the change in business model. With that in mind, both hookah enthusiasts and avoiders can probably find a reason to enjoy Cafe Istanbul, which has occupied a space just across the street from the Dorsey / Apache light rail station since it moved from its original site on Rural Road.
The current space is informal but inviting. Tables with decorative tablecloths soften the business-like feel of the market counter and buffet table. It’s fairly casual, so seat yourself if not immediately greeted. The entrance to the cafe (as opposed to the hookah store) is toward the back of the building, near one of the bike racks. Bicyclists can also park on the other side of the parking lot in the light rail park-and-ride. You may pick up the sweet scent of fruit-flavored pipe smoke on the way to the door, but that’s about the extent of the hookah exposure.
When it comes to the food, it’s important to dispel one misconception immediately: Despite its name, Cafe Istanbul is not a Turkish restaurant. Instead, its food is predominantly Lebanese with a few influences from elsewhere. That means an emphasis on familiar Middle Eastern favorites such as hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, dolmas, and mujadara, a combination or lentils and rice, as starters. These can be ordered individually or combined in a vegetarian combination that makes a filling entree when paired with balls of freshly fried falafel and, of course, pita bread.
Other combination platters include shawarma, both chicken and a beef-lamb mixture, and kafta, ground beef seasoned with herbs. All are paired with rice, garlic sauce, and hummus. Some of the best entree platters are those that appear on a white board as “specials,” even though they’re available every day. The baked lamb is probably the restaurant’s signature dish. It’s amazingly tender with a texture reminiscent of machaca or a good pot roast, but with a gently distinctive flavor to remind you that the meat is not beef.
There’s also a daily fish special, usually halibut, served with lemon butter, rice, and a garlic sauce on the side. Kabobs of beef, lamb, and chicken are also available with rice. All the entrees come with pita bread and a choice of lentil soup, a smooth puree of legumes with a slight lemon flavor and small pieces of pasta within, or a basic salad, full of fresh greens but covered with more dressing than it really needs. Most entrees come in both lunch and dinner sizes, with the former a priced few dollars less than the latter.
Despite those lower prices at midday, many customers opt for the buffet, which mixes Middle Eastern favorites with a few dishes that might seem like outliers. The familiar lentil soup is in a tureen up front, followed by a cold section full of mezes from the appetizer section of the menu and some additions such as a colorful, lively beet salad or a creamy macaroni salad. The hot section often includes moussaka, lamb stew, kafta in sauce, or baked chicken. Stroganoff, either beef or chicken, is a unexpected item, but it’s there every day. There is such a thing as Lebanese stroganoff, and that’s what you’ll get at Cafe Istanbul.
The same pita bread brought to the table with a la carte orders is also served at the buffet, along with a daily selection of one of the meat pies or pita pies sold to go in the display case off to the side. It’s easy to overlook the dessert portion of the buffet because the sole sweet item, honey pudding, is placed amid the baba ghanoush and hummus, masking itself as one of its savory counterparts. It’s worth a return trip, however, to finish the meal with a bowl topped with nuts and with a consistency halfway between a classic pudding and a custard.
A la carte dessert options include baklava, an assumed choice at any Middle Eastern restaurant, and at least one pie each day. The apple pie is quite good, but try a piece of the mango walnut one if it’s available on any given day. Drinks include fountain sodas (free with the lunch buffet), a yogurt drink, fruit smoothies, lemonade with rosewater, and a fresh mango and orange beverage. As with many Middle Eastern restaurants, there’s no liquor license at Cafe Istanbul.
At the end of the meal, it’s a worth a brief stroll into the hookah shop next door — not to consume tobacco but simply to see the wide variety of pipes and flavors available as part of this Middle Eastern tradition and its associated college subculture. Hookah, and how it fits with state and local smoking laws, will probably remain a topic of discussion in Tempe for the foreseeable future. For now, the hookah smoke can stay out on the patio at Cafe Istanbul while everyone else appreciates the Lebanese food inside.
1310 E Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
Dorsey Lane / Apache Boulevard Station