Best Middle Eastern Restaurant: Upscale

Caf� Istanbul

Café Istanbul
A little line on Caf Istanbul's menu offers a telling piece of information: The owner imports charcoal all the way from Turkey for his grill. It's that kind of attention to quality and detail that sets this attractive eatery apart from most other Middle Eastern restaurants in Dallas. We've eaten there many times, and we realize Turkish food isn't for everyone; oftentimes the meat here isn't embellished (or drowned) with fancy sauces. Instead, the rich, earthy flavors of lamb and beef, for example, are allowed to stand on their own, accented with parsley and pickled cabbage in the house specialty, Istanbul doner. Some standouts on the menu are acili, an appetizer dip-type thing made from tomatoes, bell peppers, mint leaves and a lot of garlic that goes well with Caf Istanbul's outstanding fresh-baked bread and the "ezogelin corba soup," which is simply the best lentil soup we've ever had, spicy and full-flavored. We can't say we tasted anything different about the charcoal-grilled items with that exotic Turkish wood, but they were good nonetheless--like everything at Caf Istanbul.

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant: Inexpensive

Kasbah Grill

Kasbah Grill
We kind of don't want to tell them, for fear they'll raise the prices, but Kasbah Grill's Moroccan cuisine is a steal. You can easily get out of here with a sumptuous meal for $10 a person or less. The focus is on tagines, rich stewed dishes such as beef with onions and prunes, or lamb shank in a sauce dotted with carrots and onions, served over rice. The portions are quite large, though you still wouldn't want to miss the slightly piquant harrira soup or a pot of mint tea to finish things off. The owner and staff are gracious and friendly, and you'll dine with an interesting slice of the Mid-Cities' immigrant population--including Africans of many countries. They found out something we knew: Kasbah Grill serves up some of the best ethnic home-cooking you'll find, wherever your home might be.
Zorba's
We know Ziziki's is a great place. It wins "Best Greek Restaurant" just about every year in Best of Dallas--as well as in other, inferior "best" lists compiled by competitors. Oh, and we know Ziziki's is much more than a Greek restaurant, that its owners weave in influences from all over the Mediterranean, all over the world. And we applaud that because we should. But you're gonna be out some bucks if you dine at Ziziki's. And one thing we've always thought, right or wrong, is that a Greek restaurant shouldn't be overly pricy. That's why Zorba's now tops our list for best Greek cuisine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Zorba's menu is more traditional than its upscale counterpart on Travis Walk, but it's no less well-executed. Everything we've tried, in fact, is superb--no wonder this immaculate, homey space is full on weekend nights. The Greek chicken? A crisp-skinned leg quarter, somehow imbued all the way through with the flavors of lemon, pepper and oregano. The kleftiko special? An enormous pastry filled with tender chunks of braised lamb, Greek tomato sauce and green peas. The Greek-style skirt steak? Marinated in lemon juice and other seasonings, served sizzling on a cast-iron skillet, kind of like fajitas. And the bill? Very modest indeed.
The genius of this assembly is that it is subtle yet dramatic; decidedly Texas, without slipping on its kitsch; it's sensual, without tripping over clumsy clichs. Stephan Pyles--the restaurant, not the chef--is a gentle conglomerate of modern geometric shapes, metal, rich wood, stacked Texas flagstone and terra-cotta brick swaddled in Southwestern sunset and desert hues. At the portal, a lit bridge path is flanked by a black granite reflecting pool, where a small waterfall burbles over a sculpture. The greeting chamber is separated from the rest of the restaurant by a 4-foot-high wall of copper bands woven through steel vertical ligaments. The focal point, visible from almost any point in the restaurant, is the 1,500-square-foot glass-enclosed display kitchen--a display case where steam, flame and smoke billow and coil. Like Pyles' distinctive food, this ambiance has impact, yet the senses remain nourished.
Bubba's Cooks Country
Bubba's monster chicken pieces, coated in extra-crispy batter, are the perfect specimens. Not too greasy, not too salty, just a giant hunk of chicken-y fried goodness--perfect with Bubba's exquisite made-from-scratch dinner rolls. Another thing about Bubba's: Each time we've eaten there, the chicken was perfectly cooked, a testament to quality control and properly maintained fry vats. Doesn't happen at some of those fast-food joints. Add to that a killer cherry cobbler, and it's more than worth the wait in Bubba's hairpin-turn drive-through lane.
The beauty of this service protocol is its deftly coordinated tag-teaming. Bread is dispensed and water poured with choreographed precision. Order wine by the glass and the bottle is presented, a taste is poured and, after a nod, the glass is filled. Servers know the menu and almost no question trips them. They confess to ingredients, technique and approach with eloquence, and then query you before making recommendations. They check on the experience without disturbing. Their expressions soothe when the check arrives, because they've earned that muscle-bound gratuity.
We can think of nothing better than having a friendly delivery person arrive at our door with tacos al pastor--yummy wraps of chicken, cheese, lime and pineapple pico--as well as a Corona six-pack, limes, Tylenol and some cereal for in the morning. No, you heard right. Just hit a $15 minimum and Tijuana Bar & Grill will send their Taxi Express to your door with their freshly prepared Latin dishes and whatever needed convenience store items they can satisfy with their inventory of more than 300 products. When a marathon of Nip/Tuck is on, or you just realized all of your underwear is currently in the washing machine, the Tijuana Taxi Express is the coolest thing since sliced breadwhich, of course, they can bring to your door.
EatZi's Market & Bakery
Brandon LaJoie
You want cake? EatZi's has good 'uns, and there are other fine establishments named in this issue to help you with your frosted desires. Here, however, we're talking about the staff of life. You can keep your buttercream icing and your red-velvet masterpieces. For us, the true measure of a great bakery is its bread. Thick frosting and a butt-load of chocolate and sugar can produce a passable cake, but cranking out bread with a soft, pliable crumb; rich, yeasty flavor; and a crust that's crisp and substantial but doesn't cut up your mouth or dislocate your jaw takes a master baker. Want a loaf of sourdough that actually has a touch of tartness? How about a chili-cheese bread that isn't greasy or overly dense but could make a full meal with a slice? A kalamata olive loaf that would make a Greek yearn for home? EatZi's has all those and more. So keep your sugary treats; when we're jonesing for a white-flour rush, we take it straight up--from EatZi's.
Baker's Ribs
Tough call here. Perennial Dallas favorite Peggy Sue BBQ whips up a mighty fine pulled-pork sandwich, and its ribs, brisket and sides are equally tasty, but for straight-up, down-home, Texas-style barbecue with just the right amount of smoke and fall-off-the-bone tenderness, we have to give the edge to Baker's Ribs (this year, anyway). It's no surprise that Baker's emphasizes ribs in its name. Slow-cooked but never dry, not overly greasy and dipped in a peppery but restrained sauce, Baker's ribs melt in your mouth like a meat Fudgesicle and will having you sucking on the bones like...well, you can insert your own double entendre here, but smutty comparisons aside, these things are damn good. Add in an equally smoky side of pinto beans and some lightly creamy coleslaw and you have a meal fit to make a cowboy weep for joy. Our advice though: Take your order to go. A frenzy of meat lust is best enjoyed in private. Besides, we're talking barbecue here, so you're probably gonna need to take a shower after you're done rolling in them bones.
Peggy Sue BBQ
It may seem odd giving Best Chicken-Fried Steak to a joint known for its barbecue. On the other hand, to anyone but a Texan, applying the word "best" to a flattened, floured and fried hunk of cheap beef slathered in--ugh--cream gravy is pretty weird itself. Texans' love of this dish was always a bit of a mystery to us, seeing as we're not from around these parts--or at least it was until we took a bite of Peggy Sue's huge hunk o' steak. Miracle of miracles, it didn't taste like the greasy sole of a shoe dipped in batter and smothered in wallpaper paste! We actually took another bite. (Or several. We may have been drunk at the time.) Regardless of our mental state, however, our Texas-bred spouse assures us the Peggy Sue's chicken-fried is exactly what all the Texas culinary fuss is about: a crispy coating, not greasy, surrounding a piece of tender, flavorful beef accompanied by a moderate amount of peppery gravy that actually has a rich creamy flavor not reminiscent of glue. Thanks to Peggy Sue, we can say we've become converts to the Texas way of thinking about this Lone Star favorite. Now, all we need is the number of a good cardiologist.

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