First Bite: Shish Kebab Express
And not only is this newbie posing a legitimate challenge as the best spit-roasted sandwich-maker in town, but it's raising the bar on portion-size and value in the thriving, high-achieving, counter-ordering Mediterranean food arena.
Called Shish Kebab Express, it's the little brother of the similarly excellent and similarly named full-service Turkish restaurant on Bethel Road. Two weeks ago, SK Express opened in the long-vacant Pesto spot at South Campus Gateway, and it hasn't wasted its time drastically altering the large single room there.
So expect a sparkling-clean, comfy-enough, brightly lit, souped-up fast-food space with lots of orange and wood-grain accents plus a bit of a bubbly, '60s vibe to it. Unsurprisingly, looks here are incidental because this place concentrates on cooking healthy-side food bursting with verve and style and sold at enticingly low prices.
SK Express opened with a cleverly pared-down menu featuring: a couple of soups ($3) and fresh biggie salads ($6); the anticipated appetizer set of dips/grape leaves/tabouli (each $4), but also Sigara Boreks - irresistibly crispy, cigar-shaped tubes of fried phyllo filled with molten feta; and a few worth-the-splurge made-here desserts ($1.50-$3), including the exceptional kazandibi - a sort of milky Turkish flan.
A small team of expertly grilled proteins are available in honkingly large sandwich form ($6 - either rolled in a grilled burrito "wrap" or filling a more interesting soft Italian loaf pressed and toasted down its center) or as a generously sized entree.
Entrees ($9) are accompanied by good rice, top-notch house bread (round, dimpled, toasty and sesame-seeded) and a non-recommended, sinus-purging "salad" confoundingly composed of only raw onion and parsley.
Do the Turkey trot
Shish Kebab Express' highly impressive yet inexpensive offerings are made to order and can take up to 10-15 minutes to prepare. I loved most everything I tried.
Mercimek Corba A soup of pureed red lentil and mirepoix that was deeply flavored and hearty yet had a brilliantly leavening blast of mint.
Coban Salata Colorful, crunchy, fresh and lively lettuce-less chopped salad made with diced roma tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, green peppers and a couple of good, salty black olives. It was simply, if vibrantly, flavored with olive oil, vinegar and fresh parsley.
Homemade Turkish gyro (Doner kebab) sandwich This lip-smacking behemoth takes the mystery out of mystery meat. Yeah, it was spun, seared and sliced like so many others, but its crispy, wildly juicy and decidedly non-industrial carvings tasted mostly like seared lamb. I liked it with tzatziki, tahini and hot sauces plus pickles and the very fresh salady toppings (extras are free)
Kofte sandwich Outstanding little patties made with ground beef and lamb mixed with onion and parsley. The super-juicy, sausagey concoctions were expertly grill-seared and crusted on their exteriors.
Chicken Chop entree Three huge pieces of boneless, skinless, marinated chicken thighs were scented with rosemary and wonderfully grilled. Quick-service chicken rarely gets better than this.
Shish Kebab Express
14 E. 11th St., Campus
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog Under the Table at ColumbusDiningGuide.com