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Sultan is swinging



Waitress Layla Mery shows off some of the Middle Eastern specialties available at Sultan Café. From right: hummus, spinach pie, Sultan kabob platter, fool mudammes, and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves). (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Middle Eastern food with a kick

Little more than a year ago, most San Antonians were innocent of the hookah. Shisha, a Middle Eastern restaurant that also offers a large tobacco menu, changed this by introducing many to the social pleasures of the hubble bubble, or arghila, as the water pipe is also known, and apparently the market for public puffing has expanded exponentially. At least Palestinian-born Osama Ismail thinks so. Just a couple of blocks from Shisha, the former car salesman has opened the city's second hookah hangout.

Nondescript (though unabashed green and yellow) on the outside and painted an uncompromising orange inside, Sultan doesn't attempt to compete in the decor department: Oil-cloth tables and a trio of satellite TV receivers are the dominant theme, although a covered outdoor area can be strewn with Oriental rugs for special gatherings for clientele who prefer to sit on terra firma. (There's a stage, too, but it's strictly B.Y.O.B. - bellydancer, in this case.)

If Sultan fails to exalt in its atmospheric aspects, it generates excitement in the kitchen, despite a modestly scaled menu. Baba ganough is a simple dish of roasted or grilled eggplant puréed with garlic, lemon, and tahini, but at Sultan it takes on an elusive, smoky character, and doesn't stint on the garlic. Served with pickles and pita, it's almost a meal, and a real deal at $2.99. The spinach pies, looking like tiny turnovers, sport a bready envelope, and the filling of fresh spinach and chopped nuts is appealing in a non-showy, comfort-food way.

It's with the fool mudammes (also ful medamis, an Egyptian specialty appreciated throughout the Middle East), that the taste buds snap to attention. "Do you like garlic?" asked Osama before disappearing into the kitchen. We assumed it to be a rhetorical question (one companion has long contemplated doing a cookbook titled Garlic as a Way of Life), but were still unprepared for the intense flavor of simple fava beans stewed to softness, spiked with immodest amounts of the stinking rose, and further elevated with lots of lemon. Add this to the list of Last Meal items.

   Sultan Café & Grill

5625 Babcock
Hours: 11am-2am
Major credit cards
Bathrooms not handicapped accessible

Falafel is also found throughout the Middle East, and it's one of the chickpea's finest moments. I suspect it's best as a side dish in which the crisp patties of ground and spiced legume can stay crisp; in a sandwich, as good and nutty as the taste remains, the texture seems to suffer. But the pita package with its tart "Grecian" sauce and lots of fresh, chopped tomato, lettuce, and parsley, is appealing.

The chicken shawirma, on the other hand, seems made to be tucked into folded flatbread. It's hard to tell that the chicken chunks have been marinated in yogurt; they're lean and though the chicken is often cooked on a vertical rotisserie, Sultan's is grilled, yielding a more austere product. More chopped salad stuff appears in the sandwich. But the real star is the creamy, garlicky sauce that anoints the wrapped filling; yes, we did say we liked garlic. Much less assertive is the lamb gyro with slices so perfect they must surely have come pre-prepared. Still, the flavor, augmented by a mild tzatziki sauce, is fine, making the wrap worth its $3.99 tab.

Slid off of a skewer into a folded pita with a salad of tomato, cucumber, and lettuce, ground meat kebabs are another perfect street food, and while it's true that mavens of moist meat might have to look elsewhere, Sultan's beef kabob platter with accompanying sumac-spiced rice doesn't falter in the flavor department. Should you select it, the hummus is very good, too, and abundantly blessed with garlic. Tabouli is another theoretical possibility, just not after somebody has ordered a huge amount of it to take out. This one you'll have to try for yourself.

You may have to B.Y.O.B at dessert, too (b is for baklava in this instance), but Sultan does serve the intense, sludgy coffee that's emblematic of the Middle East. There are numerous teas as well, and if mint doesn't seem to be as de rigeur as elsewhere in the Middle Eastern community, perhaps it's due to the modernizing influence of the MTV-type shows that seemed to dominate the satellite system. Once again we've exported our least. It never fails.

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