King Tut Restaurant
Sensual spices and full of surprises
I’ve had my share of food surprises over the years. Like when I was 14 and stayed overnight in a hotel for the first time and I went downstairs to take advantage of the “continental breakfast” only to find a box of donuts and a pot of coffee. What the freak is continental about those? I still haven’t figured that one out. Or the time when I was 16 and my dad’s buddies convinced me to try Rocky Mountain oysters at a fish fry. I chewed through a couple of them, nonplussed as to why everyone was watching me in breathless anticipation. I thought oysters came from the ocean—surprise!
My recent culinary shocker came when I dined at King Tut, because I had been told by several people that it was a Chinese food restaurant. “That’s a weird name for a Chinese joint,” I recall thinking during the drive over to Juan Tabo, where I got an eerie feeling of déjà vu upon entering the place. As it turns out, King Tut is in the same location where I reviewed Juliani’s a while back [see “Restaurant Review,” March 16-22, 2006].
I walked in to find the same building, different owners, different décor and no Chinese food in sight. They serve Mediterranean food, and although I had prepped the ol’ tummy for some moo goo gai pan, I was overjoyed to find another Middle Eastern place in the Heights. The dining room was quiet as I had caught them in that period after lunch and before the dinner rush, so I had the whole place to myself.
I was drawn to the cool King Tut tapestry on the side wall, and the manager told me it was freshly imported from Egypt. They probably could have gotten several dozen glow-in-the-dark Metallica tapestries for what that one cost them. It was an excellent centerpiece for the room, which is done up in sedate tans, maroons and gold. The atmosphere is quiet and refined, and the menu designed for quality rather than quantity, with no “number 31 special” or “gyro with a Coke” meals.
Both the house chef, Emmad Tuqan, and owner, Qadri Almasri, are from Palestine, and according to Manager Paul, cooking is definitely Tuqan’s thing. I spoke with him briefly, and he proudly revealed that the delicious cooking spices are his own blend, all of which are imported from Israel. I ordered the bganoush appetizer ($6.45) and the ktahini ($13.25), which came with a basket of warm pita bread and a cup of homemade soup.
This is where I was surprised again. I had my choice of two soups, either a Mediterranean chicken noodle or a tomato-based vegetable. I chose the vegetable thinking, “vegetable is vegetable, whatever.” I got a steaming bowl of soup that was so aromatic I could smell it from several yards away. I took a bite, and I was treated to a complex and almost sensual spice used to season the savory broth and perfectly cut tomatoes, potatoes and green peppers. I identified the spices as being similar to garam masala, but Chef Tuqan told me that it was actually more like allspice; his own blend of 15 finely ground spices. Paul also told me they age the soup properly (as all cooks worth their salt know to do) overnight so the flavors meld.
The bganoush was tasty with toasty, creamy tahini (F.Y.I., tahini is a sauce made from ground sesame seeds) and a cold garnish of diced tomato and cucumbers, all infused with plenty of fresh parsley and fruity olive oil. The pita bread was baked with those yummy little charred spots. The kafta tahini was a huge plate of cooked rice and vermicelli with roasted pine nuts and almonds, accompanied by a large bowl of flavorful tahini sauce filled with potatoes and cylindrical pieces of ground beef filled with mint leaves. The beef was incredibly lean—not a bit of fat. I found out that the beef they use is so lean that it doesn’t suit well for kabobs, so the only kabobs on the menu are chicken or lamb.
As with most reviews, I tried to find something to complain about, but found nothing. The food is, as Manger Paul described, “as authentic as you can get unless you buy a plane ticket.” The service is excellent, the prices are moderate and the bathrooms spotless (the ladies room was, anyway—c’mon now). My only concern, as it was with the previous incarnation, is the location. It would be a damn shame for patrons to miss out because of the semi-obscure place where the restaurant sits, in the small strip mall by Raley’s, set really far back so you have to look out for it. Manger Paul said that customers have actually called for directions from the parking lot. They are smart, though—they put up a sign by the street entrance to alert prospective diners to their whereabouts. I hope it works. I’ve had enough bad food surprises, so I’d like to see King Tut stick around and exceed expectations.