The three-block distance between the Tempe Transportation Center and the campus of Arizona State University has become a zone for intensive vertical development in just the past few years. New residential towers and hotels are occupying formerly vacant lots or, if a few cases, replacing existing buildings. Amid that high-rise development, one existing structure that seems likely to persist is the Islamic Community Center on Forest Avenue. The center is not only a mosque, but also houses a market and a Middle Eastern restaurant, Phoenicia Cafe.
The site is two blocks south of the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station. There’s a bike rack 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, pastries, breads, and even non-food items like DVDs, books, and clothing reflecting Middle Eastern cultures and Islamic customs.
The interior of the restaurant features plenty of natural light, colorful 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 proceed at a more leisurely pace. It’s shaded but not mist-cooled.
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 best enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
For quick, inexpensive lunches, a variety of pita 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 beef 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 tabbouleh into a two-fisted meatless combination. The falafel at Phoenicia is studded with sesame seeds, while the interior is moist and well flavored.
Entrees generally come on elliptical plates featuring one or more meats and a choice of two sides: salad, fries, 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. Gyros meat with a slight char is sliced fresh from the cone. In this case, the accompanying sauce is a thick version of yogurt-based tzatziki. Shawarma, thinly sliced beef or chicken, and kofta, a ground meat patty, are served in similar arrangements.
The vegetarian platter omits meat but is just as hearty due to its familiar mix of falafel, tabouli, baba ganoush, 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 tomatoes. 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 every last bit of the sauces.
Few local Middle Eastern restaurants serve couscous, so it’s pleasing to see three choices on the menu here. The couscous dishes are available with vegetables, chicken breast, or a lamb shank. 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 dish is full of thick carrots slices, chickpeas, 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, and 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 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 in the heart of burgeoning development.
616 S. Forest Ave., Tempe AZ 85281
Veterans Way / College Avenue Station