Two tiny eateries bring Mid-East to the Midwest

What makes one falafel and gyros joint stand out from the crowd? Of course, the food has to be fresh, flavorful and consistent. You want to know you can walk in any day of the week to get tabouli or baba ghanouj the way you’ve had it every time before. But a few quirks can multiply the charm, and a little patience while you wait for your kebab or tolerance of tables without white linens can often reward you with a stellar meal on the cheap. The recent boom — the last year has seen a delicious disproportion of Middle Eastern eateries open doors in Indianapolis — makes it a good time to examine a couple of spots that might not already flicker on your culinary radar. Gyros delight at Sam’s Gyros on 54th & College.At Sam’s Gyros, Jordanian owner Hassan Aburumman (Sam is his son) is no behind-the-scenes figurehead who drops by on occasion. Sit inside, and you can watch his frenetic pace as he summons your meal into being. Sit outside, and you’ll often see him fly out to the sidewalk to explain your order or deliver your food. Tucked between an Army surplus and a defunct pie bakery, Sam’s offers no more than about six tables inside and a few spilling out along College, where the 54th Street bustle makes for great people watching. Brass hookahs and samovars decorate the windowsill inside, and soft strains of music issue forth across the neighborhood.

For such a small place, the menu is generous and diverse. A Sam’s Plate ($5.50-$7.50) herds a quartet of delights onto one dish: hummus rich with tahini, nicely chunky baba ghanouj, fragrant tabouli and two crunchy falafel patties. Foul ($3.25), a warm stew Aburumman describes as the Middle East’s “best breakfast,” is as antithetical to its name as a dish can be. A bit like chili, it draws straightforward flavors from earthy fava beans with visible chunks of garlic. Spanikopita can be tough, watery and bland. Here, an appetizer portion ($5.25) brings three bubbling, buttery wedges to the table stuffed with a tangy mix of feta, lemon juice and not so much spinach that other flavors are diminished.

Gyros ($3.49-$5.95) come in four forms at Sam’s: Greek, Middle Eastern, cucumber and spicy. The unusual “spicy” is doused in a lightning hot tomato-curry sauce not for the timid of tongue. Kibby ($8.95), a grain and meat staple now available at several Indy eateries, takes the form of dainty croquettes here. A golden exterior of cracked wheat surrounds a center of tender ground beef and pine nuts, clever treatment for a dish that is often solid and chewy. Dolmathes ($8.50) are nicely spiced but have a bit more rice than meat inside the grape leaves, and the cucumber sauce seems inexplicably thin and hard to dab up with the rolls.

Unfortunately, the baklava isn’t homemade, but that just encouraged us to find desserts at one of the many new bakeries and cafés now populating College Avenue.

Sam’s Gyros

5404 N. College Ave. 251-8503Monday-Saturday, 11-10 Sunday, noon-8 Food: 3 1/2 stars

Atmosphere: 3 stars

Service: 3 1/2 stars Weekday feastWe had to push a cart of lamb carcasses out of the way to get to the window and place our order. We had plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with this tiny butcher shop and deli on Lafayette Road while we waited for our food. But when it arrived, and kept arriving, we knew we had struck a little culinary crude at Holyland Halal Meats. Stepping inside, we weren’t certain this place served hot food. The bulk of space is given up to shelves where dusty jars of tahini languish next to bins of red lentils and bulgur. But owner Issa Abusneineh recently added a lunch menu, put in a few booths and hired a new kitchen manager.

At Holyland, it’s anybody’s guess what might be cooking on the stove. The day we went, two amiable Moroccan women attended a kettle of stew from their homeland. Another day it might have been couscous. When we couldn’t decide, they promised to bring us a taste of just about everything.

Appetizers got our meal off to a slow start. Hummus was mild, to say the least, and a salad of cucumber and tomatoes wore the lightest of dressings. Falafel, though tasty, lacked any real texture a crusty exterior might have afforded. But entrees turned the table, flavor-wise. Chicken kebabs were some of the juiciest, most tender white-meat chicken any of us had tasted. Shawerma, delicate laces of grilled beef dusted in what the cooks described dubiously as “shawerma spice,” brought a bit of heat and a world of new flavors to the mouth. And that Moroccan stew was a hearty beef and pea affair, also with a slight kick perhaps better for winter but delicious on a warm spring day.

Most entrees ran $7 with hummus and salads; appetizers and sandwiches cost anywhere from $2.50 to $4. Drinks were serve yourself from coolers at the back of the store. Here, too, a dearth of desserts sent us searching elsewhere for a sweet finale. But we hardly needed it with all of the plates we had dirtied in our weekday feast.

Holyland Halal Meats

3045B Lafayette Road 925-7694

Monday-Sunday, noon-10 Food: 3 stars

Atmosphere: 2 stars

Service: 3 stars


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