Terrific Turkish food and much more await in a surprisingly multifaceted Northwest Side shopping plaza

Story by G.A. Benton l Photos by Alysia Burton

Buzzing through Columbus, you might zoom right past Bethel Centre plaza and pay no attention. After all, it's just another blur of storefronts, right?

Well, serendipity-minded passersby taking the time to investigate Bethel Centre will find out it's like the compressed downtown of a little global village bent into a three-sided street.

Spanning Bethel Centre--it conjures up a melting-pot pop-up Monopoly board--is a tightly packed horde of diverse shops, such as: an Asian bakery, a barber, a tattoo parlor, ethnic grocers, a card-playing salon plus laptop and hockey specialists.

Also mixing in seamlessly are: an overachieving, underexposed Indian eatery; a neat and cheap Vietnamese restaurant; the best brick-and-mortar Mexican street food in town; a killer Korean place hidden in the back of a store; and a terrific Turkish food palace whose cuisine, staff and clientele speak to the cross-pollinating, multi-culti beehive that characterizes Bethel Centre--and today's Columbus in general.

People from all over the world were enthusiastically eating, and I heard workers speaking English, Spanish and Turkish the last time I visited Cafe Shish Kebab. Considering Turkish food is an amalgam of Eastern European, Central Asian and Middle Eastern dishes fused together by the once-powerful and conquer-happy Ottoman Empire, this seemed perfectly fitting.

Cafe Shish Kebab's suave, handsome and comfy setting is another good fit.

Surrounded by walls memorably covered in highly polished, dark-grained wood, it's a rarity of versatility: a white tablecloth establishment suitable for special-occasion dining, rowdy family celebrations or just a casual lunch. Similarly, Shish Kebab's vibrant, fresh and healthy-leaning food offers something wonderful for every palate.

For instance, discriminating vegetarians can make a cravetastic meal out of toasty, dimpled and sesame-seed-sprinkled house bread loaves (called "pide") and delectable dips (each about $6), such as: the best baba ganoush in town; deeply, sweetly roasted ratatouille-like "eggplant with sauce"; a refreshing, lemon and parsley-forward tabouli; rich, tangy, dill-kissed and tzatziki-ish haydari; and the spicy, walnutty and salsa-y ezme. Eight of these nibblers come corralled in the excellent appetizer sampler ($16).

Shish Kebab hooks up seafood seekers, too. Check out the steaky Swordfish or garlicky Grilled Shrimp--both $18 and both served with good rice and a neat green salad.

Of course kebabs here are top-notch, but for an enlivening spin, try them prepared "Iskender" style. This means slathered in a perky tomato sauce and served atop a beautiful bed of fried pide cubes blanketed with Shish Kebab's intense yogurt. It's a game-changing sensation, especially with lusty handmade gyro meat (Doner, $16), or sausagey and bell-peppery Adana (with ground chicken or lamb, $15).

Lamb lovers are especially in luck. Try the unusual--and unusually fantastic--Sultan's Favorite ($15, think Turkish shrimp-n-grits, but with lamb and outrageously great, cheesy mashed eggplant) or the fiercely traditional Shepherd's Casserole ($15). The latter's like a gigantic, oregano-flecked stir fry (stewy meat with fajita-y peppers, tomatoes and onions) served in its own cooking vessel--a shallow black handmade wok called a "sac" (pronounced "sotch") brought over from Turkey.

Sweet toothers should focus attention on cinnamony sutlac (rice pudding), custardy kazandibi and kunefe (sweet cheese pastry).

But all eager eaters should pay more attention to the surprisingly bountiful Bethel Centre plaza.

The Lineup
More Bethel Centre eats

New India Restaurant
Cuisine: Indian
Vibe: Simple, folksy ethnic appointments and colorful genre prints engage smart area locals and graduate students
Must-try dishes:
Chicken chili, Punjabi Bhaji, Lamb Saag, Aloo Baingan

Lac Viet
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Vibe: Roomy booths, tinkling music, and friendly and informative service make for a pleasing, low-key setting
Must-try dishes:
Canh Cua, Cuu Nuong, Ca Ri, Goi Ga

Los Guachos
Cuisine: Mexican
Vibe: Wildly carved wooden tables plus Mexican TV shows distinguish this tidy little counter-ordering joint
Must-try dishes:
Tacos al Pastor, Gringas, Tortas, Huaraches

Cuisine: Korean
Vibe: A bare-bones dining niche in the back of a jam-packed Korean grocer
Must-try dishes:
Jeyuk Bokkeum, Yookaltang, Arirang Jangteogukap, Haemul-Pajeon

Cafe Shish Kebab
1450 Bethel Rd.,
Northwest Side
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Restaurant critic G.A. Benton blogs at columbusalive.com