The sandwich is a great bridge across so many cuisines, I hardly think about it when I come across another one in an unusual place. A piece or two of bread, some crunchy greens, sometimes meat, something saucy - this combination is automatic in almost every culture on Earth, a default lunch anywhere.
At Ishtar - the Middle Eastern bakery, market, and restaurant on Overland in Boise - the Arabic sandwich ($9.99) struck me not because it was unusual, but because it was so delicious, and I was sure I had eaten something like it before. This is a soft flatbread wrapped around lettuce, tomato and your choice of halabi (ground beef) kabob, Iraqi (beef and lamb) kabob and shawarma (chicken), with a sweet and just-spicy sauce. The sandwich is Panini-pressed until crisp, then sliced on a bias and pinwheeled around a smear of hummus and a handful of french fries.
About halfway through, I realized that the phantom memory was not of some exotic Persian meal, but that these very flavors somehow had come together in a way that neatly mimicked a terrific American drive-in burger. The meat is seared on its exterior, done-through and succulent. That sauce: mayonnaise, ketchup, and a little sriricha, flecked with the cinnamon and coriander from the kabob.
Suddenly, this tiny restaurant - a plain space with a half-dozen booths and a TV in the corner playing Al Jazeera - seemed itself instantly familiar, a Middle Eastern version of a neighborhood diner in the back of a grocery store. The owners serve out front, cook in the back (which takes some time, so be prepared), and ring you up at the counter by simply asking you to tell them what you had to eat. Though the dining room itself was quiet on recent visits, there was plenty of activity in the market with people shopping and picking up orders to go.
There is plenty of oddity to enjoy: on the menu are full color photographs of all the menu items, which helps navigate, but there are still surprises when the food arrives. The fava beans ($3.50) were not the bean salad I expected, but a warm stew, creamy with lemon and garlic, with confetti-diced green peppers and tomatoes, dashed with herbs. A plate of Iraqi Tourshi ($4) was not the simple plate of cucumber described by the server. Though there were some jarred, briny peppers, cucumber pickles and olives, the bright magenta batons I'd seen in the photo were tart, salty pickled beets on shaved white onion with cilantro.
More familiar (at least to me) menu items like hummus ($3) and thick yogurt ($2.50) are good, too, both streaked with olive oil. But they are elevated instantly when paired with the house-made pocket bread, an airy, elongated paddle topped with sesame seeds: crispy, chewy, soft. On one visit, this came straight from the oven, steam curling out, almost too hot to touch - the single best thing my wife and I tried at Ishtar. Another visit, the bread was less transcendent, but perhaps only because of our first encounter, and still very good. (Other sandwiches such as a shawarma are served in this bread.)
For entrees, I enjoyed the Ishtar Mixed Grill ($12.75), though some components more than others. This is a halabi kabob, a skewer of spice-rubbed chicken called shish taouk, discs of falafel, grilled vegetables and rice. The chicken is special - cooked for a short time in a high blast of heat, which keeps the meat juicy. And the crispy, sesame-studded falafel are uncommonly light and flavorful. But the rice was very heavy on cinnamon, and the halabi on its own was a bit dry. While we liked the tilapia fish itself ($12.50), this too came with the overly seasoned rice, and though the photograph on the menu promised asparagus, we were served french fries and a too-pungent onion salad.
Before paying the bill, take a few moments to explore the market, especially the bakery, where you will find a basket of the sesame bread and cases full of desserts made from nuts, dates, honey and phyllo dough. A piece of pistachio baklava is only $1.50 and terrific -another ethereally light creation, another instance where something I'd had many times before managed to surprise.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org