I've lived in Charlotte long enough to remember when the city had not one, but two Middle Eastern bakeries popping out unbelievably good pita throughout the day. Nothing beats the taste of pita straight from the oven, since this bread loses flavor as quickly as a mahi-mahi fades its bright turquoise, green and yellow color patterns to grey after being pulled from the ocean. Pita is not a difficult bread to make, but, unfortunately for pita lovers, this bread is losing market share to the current trendy wrap -- the tortilla.
But fresh pita is the essence of Middle Eastern sandwiches, especially those from Lebanon. Just-baked pita maintains an absorbency and bendability store-bought pitas, quite frankly, do not offer. (By the way, those thick pocket breads found at some area grocers bear only a remote kinship to actual pita.) Just-baked bread is the smallest detail missing from many Middle Eastern eateries in Charlotte. Sultan Kabob House in southwest Charlotte is no exception: Their bread is shipped from Ohio.
Owners Chadi Did, a native of Beirut, and his wife Nariman Bakkour, a native of New York, opened Sultan Kabob House Mediterranean Cuisine last July after moving to Charlotte from Brooklyn, N.Y. That city has a burgeoning Middle Eastern population with many bakeries and delis on-hand. Freshness is key when accessing Lebanese cuisine.
"It will take about 15 minutes for the tabbouleh salad," Bakkour told me as she took my order. "We make it fresh to order." Perfect, I thought. Having witnessed more than my share of muddled, wilted parsley tabboulehs in grocery stores deli cases, I awaited this salad which, as it turn out, sings of lemon and just-chopped parsley. Delicious.
The 65-seat Sultan is a fast casual concept where orders are taken at the front, but dishes are delivered to the table. The interior is basic: A wall of glass fronts the dining room, but diners are shielded from head-in parking by sets of blinds. Comfortable seating and bare-topped tables dot the room. One wall boosts framed phrases from the Koran. Two televisions, one a big screen, play to the room.
Sultan is busier at lunch than dinner, but the menu remains the same all day with the round-up of the usual suspects. Hummus? Check. Kibbeh? Check. Shish tawook? They have that, too. The menu is divided into sandwiches and entrées and offers as many side orders as appetizers. With the exception of the bread, most of these items are made in-house, including the baklava and cheesecake on the dessert roster.
The menu has items from around the region -- Greek salad, fool madammas (OK, I know fool -- aka broad beans -- is popular in Lebanon, but it's a national dish in Egypt). Tilapia is the fish on the kebob and the list of subs includes Philly cheese steak, turkey and tuna. Cheeseburgers and a chicken burger are also available. In other words, not all dishes are Mediterranean. However, these non-Middle Eastern dishes are also made with halal meat -- including, I am told, the sliced turkey on the sub sandwich.
The best dishes are the mezza, the starters: the tabbouleh, the innovative baba ghannoug -- this one not overly puréed, but studded with larger bits of smoky eggplant -- and the wildly flavorsome stuffed grape leaves.
The side of salsa to accompany the hummus may not be the real thing, but it provides a jolt to the herbaceous flavor profile. The sliced beef shawirma tasted flat and overcooked, but the falafel sandwich elicited murmurs of satisfaction around the table. Ditto with the lamb kebobs, which again may have been on the overdone side, but worthy of a second go. Sides help to spiff up the entrées. The yogurt salad, a tricky peasant dish, comes alive with a tapestry of flavors. The grand helping of rice, though, is cooked to the point of extinction.
But then the prices here are easy on the battered after-holiday plastic. Most entrées are less than $9 and that includes one side, and a soup -- choose lentil -- or a salad. Lebanese sandwiches are five bucks and subs are only a dollar or two more.
The beverage list consists of sodas, sweet tea, coffee, including Turkish. The hookah had been a draw -- so to speak -- but with the new Mecklenburg County smoking ban, this activity is prohibited.
Sultan Kabob House does not attempt the flamboyant, nor should it at these prices, but Did's simple, made-fresh dishes do impress.
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