There are a lot of countries along the coasts of Mediterranean Sea. We have Southern European nations like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece; the Balkan nations; Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi from the Middle East Levant; and then we have the North African countries like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya.
All of them deserve a place in the list of “Mediterranean Food”.
But in Dallas, when we visit a restaurant labeled as “Mediterranean”, we never see any dishes from Spain, France, or Italy. Rarely do restaurants feature North African icons like the Tagine, Couscous, or Shakshouka. But almost like a staple, they almost always carry Shish Kebabs, Gyros, rice Pilaf, grape leaf Dolmades, Falafel, and Hummus.
Just What Is Mediterranean Food?
It seems that if we were to write a definition based on what Dallas Mediterranean restaurants usually have on their menus, it would be the following;
A fusion of Greek, Turkish, and Levantine cuisine, with the focus on Kebabs and vertical grills.
This makes sense, since these countries are very close together and share similar cooking techniques and tastes. However, we are still missing the cuisines from western half of the Mediterranean coasts. Fortunately, we do have a few restaurants who can fill the void, it’s just that their cultural identities tend to be subtle and hidden inside the menus. My goal with this blog is to sort them out and reveal the hidden gems. If you wish, you can virtually take a tour around the Mediterranean Sea just by visiting them and ordering the right menu items.
Before we dive into the list of good eats, let’s first go over some interesting facts I learned over the years, which will help you enjoy Mediterranean food like a pro!
Mediterranean Food Trivia
A restaurant with Lebanese background usually provides a garlic sauce, called Toum, to go with any chicken dish. Toum is like a mayonnaise, in which garlic acts as an emulsifier, turning oil into a creamy paste. Some chefs use mashed potatoes to enhance creaminess. It’s extremely pungent and will leave you with a strong garlic breath, but tastes very well with chicken. Enjoy responsibly!
There are two types of eggplant dips, the Baba Ganoush and Moutabal. The main difference between them is that Moutabal contains Tahini, whereas Baba Ganoush doesn’t. Moutabal is like an amped up version of the Baba Ganoush, with a thick, pasty consistency.
Turkish Döner Kebab, Greek Gyros, and Middle-Eastern Shawarma are all stacked meat cooked on a vertical rotating grill. All three names indicates the notion of “spinning”. Shawarma uses a lot more spices than its Turkish and Greek counterparts.
Shawarma usually comes with pickles, olives, and pickled turnips. The turnips are purple due to added food coloring.
The Döner Kebab originally comes wrapped inside thin flatbread. When the German Turks brought it to Germany and Austria, they used a thicker bread in place of thin wraps. The Fladenbrot, or “Turkish Flatbread”, is a leavened circular disk that somewhat resembles the Italian Foccacia. To serve, it’s sliced into four quarters, with each stuffed with slices of Döner Kebab, tomatoes, lettuce, a yogurt sauce, and a sprinkle of extra seasoning.
Instead of pita, some restaurants may serve Taboon bread. These are non-pocketed, bubbly flatbread baked in an Tannour oven, which is similar to the Tandoor. The Taboon bread also looks and tastes very similar to Naan, minus the butter.
Lebanese “Mezze” are small tasting dishes to share with the whole group, similar to the Spanish Tapas. They could be appetizers, but are usually meant to make up an entire meal.
Tagine, or “Tajine”, is an earthen cookware popular in North Africa. It’s a shallow plate topped with a tall, cone-shaped lid. There’s usually a small cavity at the top of the lid. In North Africa, fresh water is often hard to come by, so they invented the Tagine cooking technique to braise tough meats with just a small amount of water. The Tagine would slowly simmer, while the water in the plate evaporates. When the water vapor touches the cooler cone-lid, it cools and rains back down to the plate. The little cavity on the lid can hold a bit of water, which helps with the cooling process.
Tagine and couscous are two separate, unrelated dishes in Morroco. Couscous usually goes with a soupy stew. The wheat granules need to soak up the delicious broth from the stew to be more palatable. A Tagine dish, on the other hand, is too dry to provide enough liquid to moisten the couscous, so it’s better to have it with bread.
Bulgur is a distant relative of the Couscous. You take hulled wheat kernels, cook it slightly, crack them into tiny pieces, and you get Bulgur. You’ll often find it in salads due to its ability to retain an al-dente texture when mixed with dressings.
Pastilla is a Moroccan meat pie with layers of Phyllo dough as crust. It’s airy, crunchy, and can be satisfying as an entree on its own.
The Spanish Paella is not always about seafood. There’s also the Valencia land-based Paella with snails and rabbits. In Spain, a type of long beans often shows up in a Paella, but in the States we usually have green peas as a substitute.
The Big Restaurant Guide
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “10 Best Restaurants in Dallas” type of articles. They usually give no compelling reason to visit one restaurant vs. another, and are just some subjective, arbitrary list from one or two individuals.
Instead, what I would like to focus on is this format: “If you want to try X, here are a few places where you can find a solid experience”. This way, you can easily narrow down the whole slew of Mediterranean restaurants based on cultural preference, and then on proximity or price range. I have listed eight sub-genres and over twenty restaurants, so grab a cup of coffee and get ready for the ride!
Spanish Tapas and Paella
Tapas are small tasting plates that give you a whole front-seat view of the Spanish food romance. The content of these dishes range from crispy fried eggplants to small meat skewers, just big enough to get your appetite ready for the big show: the Paella.
Traditionally, the Spaniards cook big pans of Paella outdoors for a large party. Obviously this won’t pan out in an American restaurant setting, where parties are small and unpredictable, and it’s pretty unrealistic to expect the whole floor to share one huge Paella. So what we can expect are smaller individual or family-size Paellas cooked on stove-top, but they can be just as delicious as the party pack.
There are just three places in Dallas where you can find such experience.
Cafe Madrid in uptown is straight to the point: an extensive menu of Tapas with a finale of Paella. Interestingly, if you can summon at least four hungry adults who are willing to chip in 25 bucks each, the whole group can reserve a jumbo wood-fired Paella, 24 hours in advance. If not, no problem, the individual-size portion comes to you in a cute little Paella pan too.
Si Tapas is yet another great destination for Tapas & Paella. It’s more pricey than Cafe Madrid, but the Tapas menu is a lot bigger, and the Paella tastes better in my opinion. I’ll let you be the judge! Both places are pretty crowded, so reservation is a must.
Bulla Gastrobar is bit on the safe side, but their big collection of meat and potatoes is the way to go if you are looking for comfort food. The Paella is the biggest out of all three, which can easily feed three to four people after a few rounds of Tapas.
Mediterranean French cuisine, which originated from the coastal regions of Provence and Occitanie, has never really taken off here in Dallas. We often regard French cuisine as high-society, fancy, Haute… But Southern French is mostly peasant food, which doesn’t match our usual concept of French style, and for restaurants they are difficult to charge premium on. After all, few would pay 20 dollars for a bowl of beans (Cassoulet).
Boulevardier is one restaurant that still pays homage to southern French cooking. Its brief, compact menu makes a refreshing experience of la cuisine française. Try the crisp lamb neck, an innovative dish proudly announcing its Mediterranean heritage.
If you prefer a bigger selection, Toulouse has exactly that. Here you’ll find quite a few French classics with a Provencal twist, like the duck confit with lentils and prunes, and the omelette filled with Ratatouille. I do appreciate them calling the Bouillabaisse “Our Bouillabaisse”, with a clear implication that they took some liberty with its composition.
Southern Italian Pizza and Pasta
Here in Dallas, we have an Italian restaurant in almost every corner. Despite that, few of them will give us a similar experience as eating in Italy. Not without spending a small fortune. Italian food is supposed to be rustic, affordable, light, and full of spirit (not full of cheese), and one shouldn’t have to drive all the way to downtown only to enjoy it for special occasions. Seriously, for all the restaurants who serve New York Mafia style Italian food, if they just cut down on the tomatoes, pour in one less cup of cream, and only use cheese sparingly, life would be more Italian – and more healthy, too. But no! Even to this day, Italian food culture in the States is still all about abundance, indulgence, and imitating French Haute Cuisine.
I was going to totally skip this section, but not without mentioning a few places that really resonated with my dining adventures in Italy.
What makes a great Italian dish is the quality of the ingredients, and Sprezza takes great pride in letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I have yet had the chance to try this restaurant, but just judging from Yelp pictures and the menu I have no doubt it’s as Italian as Italian can be.
Probably the first ever VPN-certified pizza in Dallas. Jay Jerrier, founder and owner, left his corporate position to bring mastercraft pizza to Dallas. Thanks to him, I was able to have my first experience of “real pizza”, and there was no going back. Cane Rosso enjoyed immense success, and since opened many more locations all over Texas.
Quietly tucked in a small shopping center on Stacy Rd, Mio Nonno is a hidden gem with big flavors. To this day I still clearly remember the Linguine Puttanesca from Mio Nonno, because I have been trying to replicate this dish at home again and again. And of course, their pizza is rustic, down-to-earth, and fully authentic.
[Update Dec 8, 2019] While looking for a quick bite before heading to Vitruvian Park for the holiday lights, we randomly picked an Italian restaurant in Addison called Pane Vino Osteria, and boy were we impressed by this place. For the first time my risotto was cooked perfectly, with just a tidbit of hard kernel in each grain of rice, rich and flavorful and not drenched in cream and butter. The sole fish was tender, fresh, and the fish’s unique taste was well accentuated. The flat iron steak I ordered seemed to be cooked in a sous vide bath before seared on a grill; its entire interior was uniformly medium-rare and free of any gamy taste typical of the cut. If I get to give this restaurant a one-line critique, I will say: they really know how to cook Italian food.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a Greek restaurant in DFW so far that really satisfied me. I blame this on my college professor, a Greek man who invited me to his Orthodox Easter party, where two whole goats were roasted on spits, with all the offal turned into various delicious Meze. Of course, I earned my entrance to the party by helping him slaughtering and skinning the goats.
Since my taste for Greek food has been spoiled by Professor Viniotis’s lamb feast, I’ll have to leave a blank for this section for now, until I discover something great later. I can of course introduce a couple of OK places, but that wouldn’t be much more useful than your own Google search. But please – if you have discovered a Greek restaurant you love, please leave a comment and let me know!
Turkish Grills and Kebabs
Turkish meat dishes are often the centerpiece of Mediterranean restaurant menus. Nothing is more satisfying than a skewer of big chunks of charcoal-grilled meat, perfumed with smoke and exotic spices. How about kicking it up a notch? There are several Turkish restaurants in Dallas who offer family-style mixed kebabs to share:
Tantuni in Richardson. The mixed grill for 4 is a very generous portion, with the most succulent chicken kebabs I’ve had. If you are looking for something more upscale, Cafe Istanbul in The Shops at Legacy is a perfect place for a weekend night-out with friends. Finally, Pera Turkish Kitchen offers a classic but relaxing experience of all the Turkish grilled recipes, including vegetarian.
One thing I want to encourage everyone to look out for is the Döner Kebab. It’s similar to Shawarma, but with different types of seasoning, and the cook usually lets it broil on the turn spit for a little longer before slicing, resulting in crispier texture. We used to have a restaurant on Walnut Hill Ln and 75, right next to Trader Joe’s. I was lucky to get to try it before it closed down. But now, just a couple of months ago, a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in East Dallas quietly opened up to serve authentic Döner Kebab. If you happen to be near Old East Dallas area, make sure to give it a try!
For decades, when we hear about the Middle East, it was always about war, terrorism, extremists… Hey, how about putting these aside for now and enjoy some good food? There is no better place to experience Levantine culture in peace than downtown Richardson, where real Middle-Easterners go find the comfort of hometown, and they made darn sure that the food is done right.
Sayyad Mediterranean Cuisine recently moved in from Houston. They specialize in Jordanian food, and more specificially, the Sayadieh. It’s basically crispy fried fish fillet topped with fried onions, and served with rice cooked in fish stock. On a side-note, within the same neighborhood, I have also discovered that Sultan Cafe had really good Gyros.
Mubrooka is an Egyption restaurant known for its Koshari, a street food with layers of macaroni pasta, rice, chickpeas, and lentils, flavored with tomatoes and fried onions. All these different components make the dish very fun to eat, and I loved its mix of unique textures. The roast chicken from Mubrooka is also a wildly popular item.
If you are looking for a big selection of Lebanese Mezze and don’t mind the hefty price point, Zaytinya may be a good place for you. I said “may be” because some of their Mezzes do taste better than the others. My personal favorite is the Garides Me Anitho, which is sauteed shrimp with a lemon sauce. I would avoid the meatballs which are rather bland and uninteresting.
Moroccan Couscous and Tagine
I’m not sure why, but it seems like Moroccan food isn’t very popular in Dallas. About ten years ago, I was still able to enjoy a plate of lamb couscous with honey-mint tea in some small neighborhood restaurant, but that didn’t last long. In fact, I haven’t seen couscous offered in any Mediterranean restaurants since it closed down. My personal theory is that we Texans prefer meats over the grill rather than in stews. Moreover, those huge plates of fluffy, sauce-drenched carb aren’t exactly appealing to either health-aware diners or flavor chasers.
Of course, our talented chefs and restaurateurs will find a way around the challenge. The answer is downtown Dallas, where diners are a bit more adventurous and willing to pay more for the new experience. There we have Medina Oven & Bar, as well as Baboush. Both restaurants offer a variety of Moroccan dishes, with Baboush being somewhat on the upscale and “familiar” side, and Medina aligning more with authenticity. For example, several of Baboush’s Tagines are served with couscous, something that “makes sense” to us but uncommon in Morocco. Medina also carries other Maghreb favorites like the Pastilla, filled phyllo pastry, preserved lemon, Harissa dip, and of course, the mint tea.
I reserved this final section to list all the Mediterranean restaurants that aren’t dedicated to any particular region. They often provide a collection of all the dishes that people love, so you can rest assured that you’ll find something you love too.
I accidentally discovered Fadi’s near McKinney while visiting the outlet mall. Though the original location was shut down, there are still three locations in Frisco, Richardson, and Updown Dallas. Fadi’s has been around for decades, and for a good reason: their food is just so delicious. The restaurant is cafeteria-style: you pick up a tray, select a main dish with one, two, or three sides from the bar, and then sit down and eat. It’s fast, convenient, and the taste is always top-notch. However, just like any cafeteria, your portion size can be pretty inconsistent from time to time.
If you are really hungry, Afrah and Ali Baba in Richardson, Terra in Plano, and Zeytin in Irving are your best bet for Mediterranean lunch buffet. Out of these, Afrah has become an icon and go-to dinner house for Dallas’s Middle-Eastern community. It was featured on Food Network, it built a whole new building right next to its old home and still kept it around, and it sells gelato and baklava Over-The-Counter.
The Final Advice
Research, research, research. When you visit a tourist attraction, if you learn all about its history and significance beforehand, the visit will turn out a lot more meaningful than going without any research. “Mediterranean cuisine” is a huge umbrella term, an over-generalization of all the nuance and diversity waiting for you to discover. So, if you are interested in a particular restaurant, study its menu, learn the names, and find out how those dishes are supposed to taste. Your effort will be rewarded!