The city of Nazareth sits 1,000 feet above sea level in northern Israel between the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee. In the late evening, lamps light up this ancient city's white façade and buildings with a glow the color of desert sand. Perched in the hills with the dark blue sky as a backdrop, the site is marvelous. Homes hug the narrow brick roads, and inside, mothers cook shawarma, babaganoush and thyme pie for their families. Copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, along with the scent of lamb, sweeten the air.
Honestly, I have no idea if this happens. I've never been to Nazareth. But, I closed my eyes real tight and imagined after Francis Kobty, owner of Prince Lebanese Grill in Arlington, told me that the mountain of amazing food on my plate was the stuff he grew up on.
"Home cooking. Just like Mom used to make," he said proudly, as if it's chicken fried steak and he's from Lubbock. But it's chicken shawarma, and he's from Nazareth.
And, well, the soft lights aren't really all that marvelous against the night sky in Arlington. Actually, the sky is hard to see. The architecture isn't ancient or breathtaking either. Instead it's the polar opposite -- an old Sonic with a DQ on one side and a bulldozed building on the other. In terms of eye candy the best bet here is the Kobty family, with their dark chocolate hair, exotic eyes and soft olive complexion.
It's BYOB, which is always fun. And a small garden area in front with about six tables is encircled with tall plants and offers a nice little reprieve from the street. Lunch is busy and fast. Dinner is more relaxed as guests arrive early before ball games and such. The small tables inside are arranged close together and there's a lot squeezing past to get to and fro.
Let's be completely frank, though. You don't come here for the ambiance. You come for the food, which is made in a small open kitchen with up to nine people at a time constantly mixing, grilling, slicing and dicing.
"Here, people love our tabouli salad, but it's because we make it literally every hour," Kobty explained. "We don't make one big batch in the morning. We make it and serve it, make it and serve it, over and over, all day. Same with our rice."
Fresh is clearly standard.
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Hands down the most popular dish at Prince Lebanese Grill is the spicy chicken shawarma plate. The rice pilaf is fluffy with a large of portion of spicy chicken atop it and is served with hummus and pita bread. I've had it at least 10 times over the past year and it's impressively the same with no variations. The chopped tomato, onions and parsley in the chicken are always fresh. And, I always eat too much.
What brings back so many regulars, though, like bankers next door and doctors from the nearby hospital, is that here you can have an incredibly flavorful meal that is, dare I say, good for you. Thick slices of grilled tomato, bell pepper and onion come with many plates, and all the meat is lean and trim.
If you need any more convincing, watch this episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Ferrari in which Kobty cooks sirloin steak, rice pilaf and thyme pie. Just like Mom used to make.