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Pocket of Sunshine

Cafe brings the flavors of the Mediterranean downtown



They're on to something at the Mediterranean Cafe, and they say it right on the menu: "A unique fast food service ... a fresh food alternative."

Unique in that the food is good and good for you -- meats are broiled or grilled, and salads and vegetables abound. The Mediterranean Cafe has been fueling shoppers at the Citadel Mall for some time, and a few months ago they opened in a sunlit spot on Kiowa Street that has housed a world-tour of vaguely ethnic restaurants in recent years. The wicker chairs, the bright blue cloths on the tables, the sunlight streaming in through the mammoth windows will make you forget winter's chill. And the friendly service is fast, a boon for downtown workers with limited lunch time.

The Mediterranean Cafe is not the place to experience the cultural and regional subtleties that abound in eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking -- the infinite variations of shish kebab, moussaka, tabbouleh and dolmas found in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, for example. It is the place for flavorful salads, generous sandwiches and hearty soups.

It's not haute cuisine, but on the plus side, it won't bust your budget. The most expensive items, the Mediterranean Feast at $10.99 and the Mediterranean Mixed Grill at $19.95, offer enough food for a small family. Most other specialties and grill features hover in the $7 to $9 range. Sandwiches and salads range from $3.75 to $4.25. Any sandwich with a soft drink and soup, salad or curly fries can be yours for $6.25.

We stuffed ourselves one wintry day with gyros, falafel and a sampler of salads. All sandwiches are served, overstuffed is more like it, in a pita bread pocket. Gyros are made with either chicken or a lamb-and-beef combo. Whatever meat you choose will be smothered with lettuce, tomato, feta cheese and thinly sliced onions. A generous slather of tzatziki, a cucumber yogurt sauce, and a garlic sauce that will be with you for the rest of the day completes this sublime street-vendorstyle sandwich.

Vegetarians have more choices than carnivores have. Falafel, a deceptively simple croquette of mashed garbanzo beans, bulgur, parsley, coriander, cayenne and garlic, comes garnished with tahini sauce and hot sauce. For an additional 50 cents, you can super-size that by adding hummus, pickles and shredded cucumbers. Hummus forms the basis of its own sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomato and marinated vegetables.

My favorite sandwich is the combo, at $4.25; it pairs gyro and falafel in a serving that requires two hands. There are a few anomalies on the menu, items that leave one wondering about the broad geographic boundaries of the Mediterranean. You can get, for example, a tuna salad sandwich; you can get a side of curly fries. You'll think you're back home in Des Moines rather than nearer Damascus.

Soup is a natural accompaniment this time of year. The consistently hearty soups at the Mediterranean Caf will warm you to the bone. Chicken vegetable, tomato basil, and lentil were on the board one day. The cup of lentil we tried was rich, almost thick enough to eat with a fork.

Two of the most ubiquitous Greek dishes, spanakopita and moussaka, are available at bargain-basement prices of $3.50 and $4.95 respectively. Add a little more than a dollar to the base price and you can get any of the marvelous salads added. For a little bit more, they'll throw in a dolma, a yummy little rice-stuffed grape leaf.

What's the other staple of stateside Greek food? Souvlaki and kebabs, of course. These range from $6.50 to $7.95, depending on whether you choose chicken, beef or lamb. I recommend the lamb, and I recommend ordering the Mazza Kebab (say it quickly and it sounds like the Monster Kebab it is) any kebab served over basmati rice with hummus, tabouleh, and baba ghanouj.

The latter two salads, two of the tastier salad dishes, redolent with garlic, lemon and parsley, are delicious. As are the marinated vegetables, as is the artichoke salad, as is ... Well, you see my point. You can eat well (assuming you like garlic) and cheaply at the Mediterranean Cafe.

You (and a pile of guests) can also eat well at home the Med does catering, a nice alternative to those mini hot dogs you might be considering for your Super Bowl party.

Whatever you eat at the Mediterranean Cafe, be sure to save room for dessert. If baklava is too sweet for you, consider the Greek custard, layers of phyllo pastry with orange custard, a light finale to a very pleasant meal.

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