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Shish Kabob Grill skillfully embraces both tradition and change

Photos: Behind the Scenes at Shish Kabob Grill

Even if you're too busy to read books, there's a good chance you've dog-eared the pages of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, or at least chatted with someone who has. Malcolm Gladwell's book spent an incredible 193 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and its premise — that snap decisions often can (and should) be trusted — bubbled over into the national consciousness. It's not hard to see why: We rely on instinct all the time, assessing blind dates before margaritas arrive and judging a project's potential based on the opening PowerPoint slide. Science, it seems, is simply confirming what we knew all along.

The thing is, Gladwell isn't always right. If I had trusted my initial impression of Shish Kabob Grill, the one drawn in those critical first two seconds, you'd be reading a very different review right now.

Photos: Behind the Scenes at Shish Kabob Grill

Mariam Ali keeps the home fires burning at Shish Kabob Grill.
Mark Manger
Mariam Ali keeps the home fires burning at Shish Kabob Grill.

Location Info

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Shish Kabob Grill

1503 Grant St.
Denver, CO 80203

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Central Denver

Details

Photos: Behind the Scenes at Shish Kabob Grill

Shish Kabob Grill
Hummus $4.99
Lentil soup $3.99
Tabbouleh $4.49
Gyros sandwich $6.99
Chicken shawerma sandwich $6.99
Falafel sandwich $5.99
Meat combo platter $15.99
Vegetarian platter $12.99
Baklava $3
Kinafeh $2.75
Turkish coffee $2.95
1503 Grant Street
303-837-8800
Hours: 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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Enter at night, and the place is close to empty and so dimly lit that it's hard to read the menu. Lights on the sidewalk, however, make signs wallpapering the restaurant's glass doors perfectly clear: "Please double-check your takeout order before you leave...no refunds." "No checks accepted." "No public restroom." Within those first few moments, sensory input all but screams, Leave now! Don't be one of the disgruntled customers complaining to equally disgruntled cooks!

But hang in there. One bite of the hummus — made by Syrian-born cook Mariam Ali, who opened the restaurant eight years ago with her husband and three sons — and your tastebuds will override your brain. This popular chickpea-and-garlic spread tends to be grainy, but Ali's rendition, made with vegetable oil and more tahini than you'll find in mass-market versions, gets whipped into a cloud so silky and light it defies the laws of nature. Drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, dotted with tomatoes and parsley and dusted with ground sumac, this appetizer is a must, even if hummus comes with something else you're ordering. One night I skipped it, thinking the portion on my vegetarian entree platter would be enough, only to spend the rest of the meal regretting my decision. Who knew my friend would steal so many bites?

Unless your friends love lemon, they'll be less likely to steal your tabbouleh. Traditional versions call for three or four parts parsley to one part bulgur; in America, proportions tend to be reversed. Here the salad-plate-sized appetizer comes out a tangle of chopped green leaves, with flecks of tomatoes and wheat doused in so much lemon you'll pucker and reach for another bite — provided you like tart citrus. If you find it too strong to eat as a salad, use it as a side for the table; the brightness complements the menu's rich, sesame-sauce-drenched fare.

Given its location across from the State Capitol, Shish Kabob Grill feels like an entirely different place at lunchtime, when light floods the windows and chatter fills the air. Men in ties and wingtips vie for tables with construction workers in work boots, all here for the same thing: sandwiches. Order one to go, as many do, and you'll get a foil-wrapped log the size of a Chipotle burrito, with chewy white pita trying hard (but ultimately failing) to keep the fillings under control. The sandwiches are well-priced, and most come with a side of onion rings, fries or salad.

The falafel sandwich features three golden discs nestled atop hummus, chopped tomatoes, lettuce and parsley. Take one bite and you'll know these plump, fried patties, with nubs of half-chopped chickpeas and the pleasantly floral flavor of a Syrian seven-spice blend, don't come from a mix. Equally good is the chicken shawerma, with tender pieces of chicken and more lettuce, tomatoes, parsley and sesame sauce. Marinated in lemon, vinegar and a hint of cinnamon, the chicken is so nicely spiced that you'll find yourself picking stray bits off your plate when the sandwich is gone.

No fewer than three cardboard cut-outs urging you to "Eat more gyros" dangle from the ceiling inside the dining area, which is decorated with silk flowers and is friendly in the no-nonsense way that breakfast diners usually are. Many restaurants and street vendors pile their gyros sandwiches with meat made from pulverized beef and lamb pressed together, hot-dog style, in a factory. When done well, the sandwich features razor-thin carvings — but Shish Kabob Grill slices the processed meat unappetizingly thick, so I suggest ignoring this directive.

Aside from sandwiches, Shish Kabob Grill offers a dozen or so entrees, including falafel, lamb shank and beef kifta kabobs (similar to meatballs). Two platters, the vegetarian and the meat combo, allow you to sample the menu without committing to one dish. More than half of the restaurant's appetizers, plus basmati rice, salad and pita, come with the vegetarian: smoky eggplant purée known as baba ghanouj, with so much tahini it's nearly as thick as straight-up peanut butter; grape leaves; a small filo-wrapped spinach-and-cheese pie; and that divine hummus. Not so divine are the lukewarm green beans and tomatoes, which I would gladly trade for a scoop of lemony tabbouleh.

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3 comments
lokii_0
lokii_0

I love this place.  I've been eating here for years and it is still the barometer by which I judge both hummus and gyros.  It does look like a divey hole in the wall sort of place from the outside, but the food kicks ass.

asnow1
asnow1

Wow, you've lost me Gretchen. The gyro sandwich at SK is one of the best gyro's I've ever had, if not one of the best sandwiches in Denver period. The thick cut meat is what makes the sandwich!!!  And how dismissive you were with the greens at Sassafras has me very doubtful of my trust in your culinary judgement.

Sarah Elizabeth Korus
Sarah Elizabeth Korus

I lived down the block from this place for two years and just realized I've never tried this place! Great review!

 
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