On July 5, 2011, Phoenix was enveloped in a moving wall of dust so monstrous that the news media started using the Arabic word “haboob” to describe it. Since then, the borrowed word has been used, perhaps overused, for describing garden variety dust storms. On Apache Boulevard, another bit of wording from the Middle East, “haji-baba,” long used in literature and movies, is also the name of one of the area’s longest established restaurants. Tempe’s Haji-Baba has endured since the ‘80s in a strip mall a quarter mile east of the Dorsey / Apache light rail station.
Like many local Middle Eastern restaurants, Haji-Baba is both a market and a cafe. The grocery portion takes up about two-thirds of the space with aisles devoted to cans of fava beans, bags of lentils, tins of tea, packages of pita, jars of preserved lemons, and just about any other ingredient associated with the cuisines of southwest Asia. The other third, off to the right upon entering, is the dining room. It’s a tight, spare room with about a dozen tables inside and a few more spilling over into the market space. Outside, big, artistic gears form a bike rack.
There’s not much decor — just a simple mural on one wall and unadorned tables. That’s okay, though, considering that the lack of ambiance translates into rock-bottom prices on just about everything. The pita sandwiches are an especially good bargain; none is more than $7, and the size is generous enough for a substantial lunch. For heartier appetites, the plates, which combine various meats and sides dishes, offer filling meals and still come in at under $11, and the massive combination platters with multiple components remain less than $16.
Haji-Baba offers most of the typical Middle Eastern favorites in terms of both appetizers and entrees. The hummus is smooth and creamy, properly augmented with a generous quantity of tahini, and works well as a dip for pita or an accompaniment for entrees. It comes alone as a starter and also as part of a generous vegetarian combination platter in which it co-stars with plump dolmas, baba ghanoush, falafel, and tabouleh. The tabouleh at Haji-Baba is heavy on the parsley and light on the grain, but well balanced in terms of tart lemon juice and mellow olive oil.
The falafel is slightly crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, and mildly spiced. It’s a pretty typical version of the dish, available as part of the vegetarian combination, featured in a big plate meal, or in stuffed in a sandwich with various garnishes, including pickles. Lesser known starters are the foul mudammas, essentially a stew of small, not-too-mealy fava beans swimming in a generous pool of olive oil and tomato sauce, and sanbusek, an Arabic egg roll. About the only Middle Eastern standard not found here is the seemingly ubiquitous lentil soup.
The pita sandwich choices include not only falafel, but also numerous meaty fillings such as gyros and shawarma. The former is the familiar blend of beef and lamb; the latter comes in both beef and chicken versions. The poultry benefits from a flavorful marinade even if it isn’t quite as tender as the chicken kabab, a popular choice available in a sandwich or a plate meal. For the adventurous, the lamb tongue sandwich is a more exotic choice. It’s about the only thing on the menu that might not appeal to novices trying Middle Eastern food for the first time.
For the plates and combinations, expect more varieties of meat. Shish kabab is made with grilled chunks of lamb. Koubideh and kafta are similar preparations of ground meat cooked on a kabab. Visually, they’re hard to differentiate since they both look like linear hamburgers, but the kafta has a discernible taste and texture from a generous quantity of parsley blended with the meat. Kibbi is another mixed dish, this time of bulghur wheat and ground meat with occasional pine nuts. Many of these kababs appears in various configurations on the combination platters.
No alcohol is served, but the beverage choices include yogurt drinks, fountain sodas, tea, coffee, and fruit juices. Anyone having difficulty deciding should just go for a “mixed fruit juice,” which blends mango and guava. Baklava is the only dessert on the menu, but it comes in half a dozen varieties. Walnut is the most familiar filling, but most other common types of nuts are also available inside layers of airy pastry. Each has a distinctive shape. The pistachio baklava is cylindrical, and the Queen baklava, full of mixed nuts, is a disc with a crimped edge.
Haji-Baba is open seven days a week and does its peak business during the busy lunch hour. Expect an occasional wait for a table, especially on Friday, but tables turn quickly because diners are expected to pay at the counter after their meals rather than lingering while a server handles the transaction. Early dinner is available until 8 PM every day except Sunday. There is another building approximately a mile to the east along Apache with a “Haji-Baba” sign. Don’t be confused by it; that building is a wholesale business, rather than the restaurant and market.
During Haji-Baba’s lifetime, a lot has changed on Apache. After years of neglect and decay, the street has become some to several large, multi-story apartment buildings with more on the way. Even as these projects go forward, there’s still a place for strip mall gems like Haji-Baba. Students and other apartment dwellers need inexpensive, high-quality places to eat. Haboobs, whether actual events described by that word or just exaggerated dust storms, come and go during monsoon season, but Haji-Baba remains a year-round bargain on Apache Boulevard.
1513 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe AZ 85281
Dorsey / Apache Station