Cafe Society

Shish Kabob Grill skillfully embraces both tradition and change

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

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 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.

Like the vegetarian platter, the meat combo includes salad, hummus, pita and basmati rice, plus beef and chicken shish kabobs and beef kifta kabobs. Start with an appetizer or two, the hummus (of course) and a bowl of thick red lentil soup, and this platter can easily serve two people. You might fight over the chicken, though, given how much chewing is necessary to tackle the dried-out cubes of beef. Curiously, the shish kabobs are slathered with ketchup-based barbecue sauce, a non-traditional touch that Ali explains is done because "customers love it."

Some of those customers choose to finish a meal here with cinnamon-heavy baklava, but Ali's sons (who run the counter and double as waiters) suggest the kinafeh, a pocket of sweet ricotta-stuffed filo that their mom made for them when they were growing up. Better yet is the Turkish coffee, made the traditional way, with powdered beans mixed with cardamom and boiled. Finish your small cup and you'll see a thick mud of settled black grounds lining the bottom.

Despite the slew of signs on the door, Ali and her family are quite willing to accommodate customer requests. If you don't want barbecue sauce on your kabobs, they are happy to leave it off. If you want cream in that strong coffee (a traditional no-no), they are willing to comply. Even the rice is spiced rather than white, as Ali makes it at home, because "I ask my customers, 'Do you like it?'" she says, and the response is always yes. It seems those somewhat angry signs were prompted by bad behavior on the part of a few customers. But if Ali knew what a misleading first impression they give to the rest of us, she'd no doubt take them down.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz