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Desert Companion

The dish: Wrapped, skewered, dipped and spiced

Mint Bistro

Sampling the culinary traditions of Israel, Iran, India and beyond reveals countless variations in the valley (usually with a kick of heat)

I’m convinced there’s an art to skewering and grilling meat. Consider the care and thought that goes into a koobideh kabob, for instance. It’s a traditional Persian kabob made of ground chicken, beef, or lamb, marinated and then molded onto narrow metal skewers 20 inches long. Indentations in the kabob keep the meat evenly distributed to capture the heat, and secured so it doesn’t break while it’s turned and grilled on an open flame. Grooves within the kabob and slight char give the koobideh its signature look — like a rippling ribbon of meat.

Chicken KebobBest of all, you get to eat this art. At Flame Kabob (4440 S. Maryland Parkway, #109, 702-476-5544, flamekabobmenu.com), the kabobs hail from the culinary traditions of Southern Iran. Here, the turmeric-tinted chicken koobideh kabob — my usual — sits on a bed of saffron-infused Basmati rice. But don’t dig in just yet. Here’s what you do: Sprinkle sumac — a citrus-like spice with a tart kick — on the kabobs, pierce the accompanying charred tomato to unleash its juices, and fork it all up with a dollop of mast-o-khiar, a refreshing and fragrant cucumber and mint yogurt dip. Hints of cumin, cinnamon, rosemary and other mild seasonings run throughout the kabobs, including the tenderloin chicken, lamb, or beef kabobs — cubed pieces of meat marinated for days.

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Even kabobs aren’t immune from our mania for convenient cuisine. Kabob rolls are considered quick, filling, and popular takeout in Pakistan. Of all the cuisine the Las Vegas Strip has to offer — wagyu beef, tapas, sushi, steak and lobster combos — there’s also a place to get a Pakistani kabob-roll fix, and that’s at Kabob ’N More (3049 Las Vegas Blvd. S. #5 and #6, 702-432-4611), a hole-in-the-wall with heart. Order the seek chicken kabob wrap ($7.99), minced meat wrapped in thick, soft tandoori bread and speckled with green chilies with notes of garlic, ginger, chili powder, chili flakes and smoky cumin. More adventurous eaters should be ready for spices that bring on some heat, like in Kabob ’N More’s Lahori fried fish, a recipe the chef brought with him from his native Lahore, Pakistan. Marinated with hot sauce, garlic, ginger, lemon, chili powder and other blends (let the chef keep some secrets!), the fish is served with raita, a cilantro-yogurt sauce, to help quell the burn. Kabob ’N More brings together dishes from the Mediterranean, India and Pakistan, so you’ll find hummus, samosas, stews with bone-in chicken and vegetable rice dishes on the menu. But getting back to Indo-Pak cuisine — as Kabob ’N More prides itself on — for dessert, you can’t pass up kheer ($2.99), a thick, milky-white rice pudding sprinkled with green pistachio pieces.

 

DosaAny chance to eat a dosa, a popular street food of the Indian subcontinent, and I’m in. At Mint Indian Bistro (730 E. Flamingo Road #9 and #10, 702-894-9334, mintbistro.com), they’re served plain, stuffed with a medley of spiced potatoes and onions (the masala dosa) or smeared with hot chili chutney (the mysore dosa). Whichever you choose (my favorite is the masala dosa), be sure to dip it in the accompanying creamy coconut chutney and sambhar, a lentil curry of vegetables, tamarind, fenugreek and mustard seeds. Mint’s menu is a fusion of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani and other Southeast Asian cuisines, which makes eating here a guessing game of where one region ends and another begins. Biryani rice combinations and curries highlighting eggplants, cauliflowers, mangoes and okra may all meld together on your plate — and that’s fine. You’re left with something less like a plate and more like a colorful canvas — ready to be soaked up with buttery garlic naan bread. Expect to leave with your fingertips painted with hues from spices you didn’t know you liked until now.

Falafel

KnauffeOn cold days, a warm, hearty and healthy soup is in order, and Amena Mediterranean Bakery and Café (2101 S. Decatur Blvd. #10, 702-382-1010, amenacafe.com) is the place to go. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is the finishing touch atop the gold-colored lentil soup, a recipe the cafe owner brought with him from his native Nazareth. The soup bowl alone ($4.99) seems never-ending, but save some room for Middle Eastern favorites such as the lightly fried falafel sandwich slathered with hummus and tahini sauce. You’ll find mostly grilled items here — this is a place friendly to vegetarian, vegan and halal eaters. Shawarma is king in the Middle East and from border to border, the interpretation of the sandwich differs. Here, seasoned and grilled chicken strips are stuffed in a pita pocket with pickles, onions, cabbage, tomatoes and sumac ($8.99). Baklava needs no explanation, but Amena’s version deserves a bit of star treatment. In between layers of phyllo dough lies a mixture of cinnamon-spiced walnuts and almonds, drizzled with a vegan, sweet syrup instead of honey. The baklava isn’t basted in butter, but rather vegetable ghee. Still got a sweet tooth? Try kunaffe ($7.99), a Danish of shredded phyllo dough stuffed with cheese or walnuts, or katayef, a pancake filled with custard and topped with walnuts, sugary syrup and pistachios.

I’ve never met a chickpea I didn’t like. At Jerusalem Grille (4825 W. Flamingo Road #6 and #7, jerusalemgrillvegas.com), they had me at “falafel.” A generous portion of falafels is served with tahini sauce, pita bread and two sides — such as couscous topped with steamed vegetables, salad or fries. The chickpea is center stage in a variety of hummus dips — with tahini, shawarma chicken, mushrooms, or falafel. An appetizer to consider is the Moroccan potato cigar, a fried pastry sheet rolled up in potato, garlic and mild spices.

In one corner of Afandi Restaurant and Market (5181 W. Charleston Blvd. #120, 702-870-9191, afandilasvegas.com), a butcher takes orders of meats to chop, while in another, Lebanese-style kabobs are made to order. Put down the feta cheese and olive oil in your cart and pause for shish tawook kabob, a notable Lebanese dish of char-grilled chicken bathing in spices, lemon, garlic and mild herbs and yogurt and folded into fluffy pita bread with fresh parsley, onions, tomatoes, turnip pickles and tahini ($5.99). Get a combo plate to try three different styles of lamb, chicken, or beef kabobs over rice, with sides of raw onion, parsley and pita bread ($10.99). Dumplings are common across most cultures: Fried, steamed, boiled — however they’re made, they’re labor-intensive, so you know you’ve got something special when you break one open. The Lebanese version is called kibbeh, a torpedo-shaped dumpling stuffed with ground beef, onions, mild seasonings (usually allspice), and bulgur wheat, which give kibbeh a cornmeal-like crust. Afandi’s take on kibbeh (three pieces for $3.99) definitely has the love.

Chapati rotis are light, airy, unleavened wheat flatbreads and a staple of the South Asian diet. They’re handmade by Phulan Chander, owner of Rani’s World Foods (4505 W. Sahara Ave., 702-522-7744, ranisworldfoods.com) whose cooking reminds many South Asian transplants of home. But before scooping up dals (lentil curries) with Chander’s chapati, whet your appetite with snacks. I recommend the samosas, a fried potato dumpling stuffed with potato and peas (and some kick from garam masala and cumin, too), sauced with accompanying chutneys. Still in snack mode? I recommend papri chaat ($3.99), a tangy, salty and sweet snack of small, thin crispy papadums doused with chickpeas, potatoes, mint, cilantro, yogurt and tamarind chutneys. (Hint: Eat each papadum with all the fixings in one bite for full flavor.) For the main course, order the Rani thali ($7.99), a plate highlighting the big three flavors of Indian cooking: ginger, garlic and onion. You’ll get the lentil of the day, two curried vegetables, Basmati rice, veggies, and roti to scoop it all up.

For dessert, yes, you’re still eating with your hands. Try the glistening, bright-orange jalebi. Shaped like a spiraling pretzel, jalebi is made of wheat flour, it’s fried, sweet and sticky and best served warm. It’s a hit in many South Asian celebrations — and with a new culinary adventure under your belt, you’ll have good reason to celebrate, too.

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