by Mel Small
There was a time not too long ago when you stopped at a service station for gas and maybe a soft drink or a candy bar. Although most now have morphed into convenience stores offering sandwiches, hot dogs, donuts and slurpies, few if any flaunt the restaurant-quality cuisine turned out at Mr. Kabob, located inside a Sunoco station at the corner of 12 Mile and Coolidge.
When the Gulli family decided to expand its business four years ago, they hoped to open a Subway or a pizza franchise. After jurisdictional problems dashed those projects, they came upon the idea of creating Mr. Kabob in their service station and fortunately resisted erecting a sign that would have read, "Eat here, get gas."
Although there are two tables adjacent to the open kitchen that spans the length of one side of the station, most everyone comes to Mr. Kabob for takeout. After all, despite the potted plants that serve as a leafy barrier between the convenience store shelves and the restaurant, not many patrons enjoy dining in a bustling gas station. It is also depressing having to watch those pumps cranking out fuel at around $3 a gallon.
According to manager Sam Gulli, whose folks came to the United States from Iraq, his fare is a mixture of Lebanese and Chaldean standards, with a few unique wrinkles. One of those wrinkles is the surprising absence of lamb on the menu. I received two explanations for this curious omission: Lamb is costly and the 80 percent or more of customers from Berkley and the surrounding suburbs are unfamiliar with the cuisine and thus prefer beef to the more pungent smell and taste of lamb. (The people who run Kabobgy on Northwestern Highway ["Mediterranean spice," Metro Times, June 15, 2005] also were compelled to de-emphasize lamb because most of their clientele opted for beef when given the choice.)
Ahmad and Ali, Mr. Kabob's chefs, have previously worked in restaurants in the Middle East. Because of their customers' preferences, they prepare their dishes a little blander than they would were they cooking on Seven Mile Road or in Dearborn or in Lebanon for that matter.
Considering the fresh ingredients and generous portions, Mr. Kabob ranks high on any cost-benefit ratio. The twelve entrées, which include soup or salad and rice or fries, average around $7 for lunch and $10 for dinner, and many of the sandwich variations of those entrées cost less than $4.
Indeed, prices are so moderate that one might consider a small side order of hummus ($3.95), smooth and creamy if a bit light on the garlic, or mujadara ($3.95), a more exotic lentil, wheat and onion combination that might be just a tad too oily. The pita, alas, like that served by most of Mr. Kabob's competitors, is the plastic-wrapped, store-bought kind, unlike the wonderful fluffy variety baked in-house at La Shish or Assaggi.
As for the comes-with items, the crisp, mostly green house salad, bathed in a tangy lemon-oil dressing, is a clear winner over the two soups, both of which are at best serviceable. The crushed lentil is thin and lacking in spice and the chicken-lemon rice will appeal only to unadventurous souls.
On the other hand, the Gullis deserve kudos for their fatoosh and tabbouleh salads, each of which can be substituted for the house salad at an additional charge. Tossed with a lemon-oil dressing similar to that which appears on the admirable house salad, the more elaborate fatoosh is made up of tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, onion and pita chips, sprinkled with sumac, a sharp Mediterranean spice. The simpler tabbouleh parsley, onion, tomatoes and coarser-than-usual wheat in an especially lemony dressing, exceeds expectations.
Even better is tershi, a vegetable side ($2-$4), highlighted by crunchy pickled turnips, celery, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and beets, perhaps not to everyone's acquired taste. It comes with an OK tahini dip and an earthier sauce made almost entirely of garlic. When I asked Sam how he was able to make the garlic appear in creamy swirls, he refused to reveal the family recipe, although he did suggest that ice was a surprise key ingredient.
Among the entrées, the especially tender chicken or beef kabobs are more pleasing than the drier strips of marinated and char-grilled chicken or beef that make up shawarma. More unusual is the most expensive item ($12.95) on the dinner menu, ghallaba, a slightly mushy stew of sautéed beef, chicken or shrimp, mixed with mushrooms, green peppers and other vegetables. All of the entrées, which also include a respectable chicken kafta, sautéed shrimp and simple chicken breast, are served with a veritable mountain of well-prepared rice.
Although there is baklava available for dessert, one might do better looking through the convenience store for other sweets. The Gullis will, however, occasionally offer rice pudding to those whose affairs they cater.
When they finally decided to open Mr. Kabob in their service station, the family, according to Sam, wanted to develop an eatery that "stands out" among their competitors. It is safe to say that they have accomplished their goal by making their once ordinary Sunoco station a destination not only for OPEC-priced gasoline but a destination, in its own right, for generally solid Middle Eastern fare.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.