Tempe’s Mill Avenue sometimes seems awash in sandwich shops and taco joints, some of them more bars than restaurants. It’s worth remembering that Downtown Tempe’s most walkable corridor is also home to lesser known restaurants that carve out their own niches based on the uniqueness of their food. Med Fresh Grill 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, often under-appreciated in the United States.
Now in its second decade, Med Fresh occupies a space just a block-and-a-half south of the Mill Avenue / Third Street light rail station. Shaded bike racks are found nearby under Mill’s many ficus trees. A small patio facing Mill provides a pleasant outdoor dining environment for Med Fresh customers, and lettering on the awning overhead proclaims that a Turkish grill is found inside. There, the decor is subdued with colorful sconces, decorative tiles, tourist posters, and a few small kilims, or Turkish rugs. Hookah pipes sometimes make an appearance.
Since Turkish food is still unfamiliar to so many customers, Med Fresh uses a sort of dual approach designed to attract novices during lunch and reward aficionados in the evening. By day, Med Fresh 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.
Whether one calls it “doner,” “gyro,” or “shawarma,” these basic meat preparations are 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.The doner meat can be beef, chicken, or a mix of beef and lamb. They’re just the starting points, however, on a menu based heavily on kababs. Each of the meats is also available cooked and served on skewers. The chicken kababs here have a slight char on the outside but are unusually moist and flavorful due to generous marination.
For those who can’t decide, a mixed grills offers kababs of chicken, beef, and adana, a ground beef preparation seasoned with parsley and onion. Several of the kabab entrees come in both regular and small sizes, as well a even smaller portions on a children’s menu. Regardless of the meat and size chosen, it’s always a good idea to ask for a serving of the spicy, off-menu red sauce on the side. This secret item is more complex and better matched to the flavors of Turkish cuisine than the nearly obligatory bottles of sriracha found at the restaurant’s tables.
While meats on a skewer can be a simple pleasure, there is more complexity to Turkish cooking, especially with red meat. The iskender kabab features sliced doner meat mixed with pieces of pita bread, adorned with grilled vegetables, and then topped with a mixture of two sauces, one zesty and based on tomato and the other tangy and made with yogurt. The beyti kabab incorporates adana-style ground beef wrapped in a piece of lavash and coated with the same mixture of two sauces. The final result comes close to Turkish enchiladas.
With all the emphasis on meat kababs, it’s easy to forget that Turkey has multiple coastlines on the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas. The one seafood dish here is a simple grilled fish platter. The fish used here has mild, white flesh that contrasts nicely with the peppery seasoning in which it is dusted. The generous serving holds its own with the accompanying rice, pita, salad,and tzatziki just as well as any of the beef, lamb, and chicken selections. Its gentle taste also means the fish can benefit from the addition of the restaurant’s secret red sauce.
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 version of moderate viscosity. The flavor suggests chicken broth, so vegetarians may wish to inquire before ordering. There are also some classic Mediterranean appetizers such dolma and falafel and the popular dips hummus and baba ganoush, all of which can be combined in a hearty vegetarian combination platter.
For dessert, there are two similar pastries available: baklava, an excellent buttery version of the classic, and kadayif, made with shredded filo 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. Despite being a predominantly Islamic nation, Turkey has its own beer industry, and a bottle or two of Efes Pilsener is a straightforward accompaniment to many of the most flavorful entrees on the menu.
With so many places coming and going on Mill and many of them feeling like they’re cut from the same cloth, it’s refreshing to have a restaurant that follows the traditions of its owners’ heritage without hesitation. Restaurants like this are abundant on Apache Boulevard and other parts of Tempe east of the Arizona State University campus but far less common on Mill Avenue. A Turkish restaurant is itself relatively rare, but finding one in this location makes the experience even more appreciated when it’s time for a break from burgers, tacos, and pizza.
414 S. Mill Ave., Tempe AZ 85281