A café of in­fi­nite va­ri­ety

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Laurel Glad­den

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.”

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