Thursday, February 19, 2009


My first encounter with Middle Eastern food was when I was a grad student attending the California State University in the San Francisco Bay Area. For a quick lunch I would often fall into a long line at the falafel stand on campus and sit at a neighboring bench or table to gobble down my order. Over the two years I spent at Cal State, I grew accustomed to Middle Eastern “fast food” – such as falafel and lentil soup – and I became intimately acquainted with new flavor combinations that tickled my palate and took me to new and exciting places. That’s what food should be about after all, right?

Eating the food at Mazza takes you on a journey through the Middle East. In one bite you can be taken to Egypt or Greece and in the next bite perhaps Israel or Lebanon. For example, a staple of Greek cuisine is the stuffed grape leaf. The vegetarian grape leaves at Mazza are wrapped around a combination of rice, herbs, lemon, and tomato and served with a yogurt sauce made of cucumber and mint. The grape leaf itself is quite savory, with hints of smokiness perhaps from a scant touch of cumin. The yogurt sauce breathes additional life into the grape leaf, brightening its flavor and bringing these tiny little fingers together into little bundles of joy.

The hummus at Mazza is silky-smooth. It is rich in flavor and gives you a subtle hint of lemon with strong chickpea and garlic overtones. The tahini rounds the hummus out nicely giving it a distinct sesame taste. Dipped through with a warm piece of pita, it is a meal in and of itself. But if you like hummus, you’ll love Mazza’s muhamara - a red colored dip composed of roasted red pepper and walnuts, sweetened with pomegranate molasses. The molasses enhances the natural sweetness of the roasted red peppers, but the use of spices in the dish provides a well-balanced savory tone. You take up each bite of muhamara using a crisp lettuce leaf. As such, with every bite you get a nice crunch from the lettuce on top of the smoothness you get from the dip. Every bite leaves you with a cool, refreshing feeling in your mouth. With each bite, you want more.

A safe bet for even the most unadventurous, the chicken mutabbak is a savory chicken and rice dish. The chicken is plated with a sweet tamarind sauce and served over basmati rice, around which beautifully roasted potatoes are circled. The dish is truly an invitation to eat. A similar dish that many will find equally approachable is the kebab platter. Mazza offers a nicely charred and flavorful kebab platter filled with grilled chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. If you hate cauliflower, you should try the grilled cauliflower off the kebab plate at Mazza – the char adds a new dimension to what you might typically equate with cauliflower.

And of course there is always the falafel – a deep fried vegetable patty consisting of fava beans, chickpeas, spices, and tahini served in a warm pita with cool lettuce and spicy, pickled turnips. I would akin a falafel sandwich to a Middle Eastern hamburger – it could be said however, that falafel might be an acquired taste. Although I’m of Filipino-American heritage, Middle Eastern cuisine has somewhat of a “comfort food” effect with me. When I bite into the falafel sandwich at Mazza, I get transported back in time. Eating falafel takes me back to my days in grad school. It makes me remember what those two years of my life were like back then and it makes me think about some people I haven’t thought about in a very long time, and this….makes me happy.

~ Salt Lake City, Utah
15th & 15th (original location) or 9th & 9th

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