After readers responded to my lament about the lack of interesting ethnic food near the Tech Center, I decided to explore not just the southern suburbs, where I grew up, but the entire circle outside of Denver city limits, looking for the best ethnic restaurants in the metro area, strip-mall salvation from the chains that comprise most of the restaurant options in those 'hoods. My first successful stop was Sultan Grill, a Lebanese-Syrian cafe in a nondescript parking lot near 64th and Ward in Arvada.
The place was opened nine years ago by Ali Alissa, a native of Syria who'd never been in the restaurant business before but wanted to exhibit specialties from his home country: familiar Middle Eastern dishes such as tabbouleh, hummus and falafel, but also stuffed cabbage leaves, grilled quail with garlic sauce, and sambusek -- a cheese and spinach pastry wrapped in filo dough.
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Sultan Grill took over a spot that had formerly been a cafe and it still has a coffee-counter feel, though it's been decorated with Middle Eastern art. The kitchen isn't visible, but because it's just separated from the dining area by a curtain, you can hear the sounds of the grill as you wait for your food.
While I waited for the grill, I devoured a fatouch salad: a blend of cool, diced tomatoes, cucumber and crunchy bits of pita bread that had been bathed in lemon juice and olive oil and inundated with mint. I followed that with earthy baba ganouj that had been spiked with plenty of tahini, lending a strong flavor of sesame. Then came the beef and lamb gyro, with pungent meat shavings drizzled with tart, fresh tzatziki and swaddled in a warm, fluffy disk of flat bread.
Lebanese and Syrian restaurants are a relative rarity in Denver, so Sultan Grill is worth the trip if you have a craving. And if you're already in the area, it's definitely a good lunch option. Skip the nearby fast-food outlets and dine like a sultan.