A café of infinite variety
Though you’ll spot Egyptian monikers on the menu at Cleopatra’s Café on the southside — Cairo, the Nile, King Tut, the Sphinx, and even Moses have plates named for them — strictly speaking, Cleopatra’s Café isn’t just an Egyptian restaurant (and anyway, the famed queen was actually Greek). This restaurant, the sister of Cleopatra’s in the Design Center on Cerrillos Road, offers dishes from all around the eastern Mediterranean, including specialties from Greece — gyros, moussaka, spanakopita, and Greek salads (the typo on the menu that turns this into a “Geek salad” may make you giggle). If you like Middle Eastern food, you could probably recite a lot of the menu by heart.
There’s a cavernous, cafeteria-like quality to the dining room — a giant airy cube with a high ceiling and concrete floor. Tall windows on two sides can make you feel as if you’re dining in a fishbowl, but bold earth-toned walls, well-spaced wood tables and chairs, and mellow lighting warm things up. Music videos and the occasional commercial for halal meat-processing facilities flash across the screen of a television mounted in the corner. One afternoon we ate lunch to the crooning of a Middle Eastern Julio Iglesias.
Staff members are always friendly but also efficient and quick, which is good if you’re planning to stroll across the parking lot to catch a movie at Regal Stadium 14. Order and pay at the counter — though you may need a few mouthwatering minutes to navigate the lengthy menu. Just over the whiteboard where daily specials are scrawled, you’ll eye the spinning tower of gyro lamb in the back. Don’t overlook the soup selections listed on a chalkboard at the end of the counter. Try the avgolemono, Greece’s take on chicken soup with rice, which packs a lemony wallop, but skip the lentil — it’s earthy and well seasoned but too watery to be very exciting.
The King Tut Plate is a dream for the indecisive vegetarian, including as it does pretty much every iconic Middle Eastern offering: puddles of hummus and baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, a small pile of falafel, and a couple of tender dolmas. The tabbouleh is especially good if you like a little bulgur with your herbs rather than the other way around. The powerfully tart hummus and baba ghanouj are smooth, rich, and terrific scooped up with triangles of soft, pillowy pita. Dense falafel nuggets with a tawny crust are noteworthy for not being particularly greasy.
The Greek and Egyptian salads (the former is topped with feta and olives; the latter, garbanzos) are fresh, cool, and simple — perfect for a summer afternoon or if you want to eat light. The mild, slightly sweet, and aromatic moussaka is meat-free, too, and topped with a unique crust of moistened pita. The spanakopita had an oddly industrial flavor to it; the dark-green spinach center was roof-ofmouth-blisteringly hot, and the crust displayed the unmistakable toughness of something that has spent too long in a microwave. Skip it or ask for it at room temperature.
Cleopatra’s has plenty for meat eaters as well. The Luxor kebab platter, skewered hunks of slightly chewy lamb and smoky, still crunchy grilled onions and red peppers, is an incredibly generous plate of food. It includes a small mountain of tender, aromatic rice; a nice little salad; and a stack of warm pita. An even better deal is the 10-buck Cleopatra Plate — mounds of savory chicken and lamb, rice, a salad, and hummus or baba ghanouj; it’s enough food for two. You can also choose chicken or lamb for your gyro. Both meats are strikingly tender and full of flavor — delicious whether you eat them with pita or not.
Given Cleopatra’s proximity to the movie theater, crowds often come in waves. With its location, varied menu, and generous servings, it can be especially attractive for families. I tip my hat to Cleopatra’s for including spanakopita and gyros among the dumbeddown standards so typical of kids’ menus, which one opinionated New York restaurateur has called “the death of civilization.”