In just a few weeks, the holy month of Ramadan observed by Islamic populations around the world begins. For Muslims, Ramadan requires fasting during daylight hours in order to concentrate on prayer and self-improvement. For the majority of Phoenix Metro Area residents who don’t practice that faith, however, meals go on as scheduled — even at a restaurant located right next door to a mosque. Anyone at any time of year can experience Middle Eastern foods at Phoenicia Cafe, which is part of the same complex as Tempe’s Islamic Community Center on Forest Avenue.
The site is just a few blocks north of the ASU Main Campus and a few blocks south of the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station. There are bike racks in the parking lot between the restaurant and the community center. The restaurant shares a storefront with a Middle Eastern grocery known as Salam’s Market. Entry is through the market, and a left turn leads to the dining room. Stop on the way in or out to browse the store, which is full of lentils, spices, grains, teas, sauces, and even DVDs, books, and clothing reflecting Middle Eastern cultures.
The interior of the restaurant features murals, faux stone walls, and flat-panel televisions arranged around a compact dining room. Sometimes the screens show concerts or movies in Arabic; other times, it’s the same cable news or NBA games that might be seen anywhere. The restaurant is full service for the most part, but expect to walk up to the cash register to pay at the end of the meal. Outside, there’s a comfortable patio where meals go at a more leisurely pace. It’s shaded but not mist-cooled. Service is friendly and quick, having improved noticeably over the years.
To start, Phoenicia serves the full range of Middle Eastern mezes, either a la carte or in a generous combination platter. The most popular option is probably the thick, creamy hummus, which is redolent of garlic and best augmented with a splash of olive oil. The baba ghanoush is a version of the popular dip with a strong smoky note from thorough roasting of the eggplant within. The tabouleh has a distinctive tartness from lemon juice. Phoenicia’s lentil soup is relatively light version of a Middle Eastern classic. It’s best with a squeeze of juice from the accompanying lemon wedge.
For quick, inexpensive lunches, a variety of “pita boat” sandwiches are available, many of them around $5. Chicken is offered in chunks as a kabob, in slices as shawarma, and ground as kofta. Gyros, shish kofta, and shish kabob are the red meat choices, and there are several meatless sandwiches. The heartiest of the sandwiches is the falafel deluxe, which stuffs two pita pockets full of falafel, hummus, and tabouleh into a two-fisted meatless combination. The falafel at Phoenicia is studded with sesame seeds, while the interior is moist and well flavored.
|chicken kabob plate|
Larger entrees generally come on elliptical plates featuring one or more proteins, salad, and hummus or fluffy yellow rice. The chicken kabob plate is safe place to begin. A generous serving of moist white meat comes with a thick garlic sauce designed to accentuate the mild poultry. Shish kabob comes off the skewer as chunks of tender, mild lamb. In this case, the accompanying sauce is tahini, although the garlic sauce that comes with the chicken seems like it might be an even better match. Gyros, shawarma, and kofta are all served in similar arrangements.
|shish kabob plate|
The vegetarian platter omits meat but is more than filling due to its familiar mix of falafel, tabouleh, baba ghanoush, and dolmas. Less well-known dishes worth exploring at Phoenicia are typically the ones with flavorful sauces. Ghallaba, made with either shrimp or chicken, is a dish that falls somewhere between a creole and a stir fry with its zesty, colorful sauce full of bell peppers and tomato. Quzi is a similar dish but with lamb as the meat. Almost everything comes with warm pita bread, which, along with the rice, is ideal for soaking up the last bits of the sauces in these dishes.
Few local Middle Eastern restaurants serve couscous, so it’s pleasing to see three choices on the menu here. The couscous dishes are available without meat, with chicken breast, or with a lamb shank in the “Couscous Phoenicia.” The last is the best of the preparations because the meat is best able to absorb and complement the sauce. In all three cases, the sauce is full of thick carrots slices, chick peas, potato chunks, and peppers. Those work well, but the addition of what appears to be a standard vegetable mix with tiny bits of corn, carrots, and green beans seems redundant.
Since Phoenicia is next to a mosque, no alcohol is served, but a variety of fruit juices and sodas are available. There’s fresh squeezed carrot juice for the nutritionally minded. On the sweet side, ask for a “Basha Twin” mixed juice if torn between mango and guava, but be warned that the pulpy nectars are filling. Equally rich are the shakes, available in both mango or strawberry, or a combination of the two known as a “Strawbery Flip.” For a lighter beverage, make sure to ask for the fresh lemonade and skip the pink lemonade, which comes from the soda fountain.
For dessert, baklava is the most popular choice, but it comes in multiple varieties: walnut, almond, cashew, pistachio, pecan, and a cylindrical mixed nut version. Phoenicia has a children’s menu, but the emphasis is on items like chicken nuggets and French fries. Children with even the slightest sense of adventure will probably do better with chicken kabobs and rice or a falafel sandwich. Phoenicia may be next to a mosque, but it’s a worthwhile destination for people of any faith, or no faith at all, who believe in good eating at any time of year.
616 S Forest Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Veterans Way / College Avenue Station