Review: The Mediterranean Chef Cafe

The Mediterranean Chef Cafe
5908 Aurora Dive (map), 512-970-9150,
Hours: 9am-8pm Mon-Fri; 10am-8pm Sat
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.25.14
Mediterranean Chef hummus is the Jif™ peanut butter of hummus. The name brand. The one you’ve sampled at farmers’ markets, a spry antique yellow with a sharp tongue. “Grandma’s H-u-m-u-s,” because Grandma can spell it however she likes. The cafe where that hummus is made, just west of Lamar and Koenig, is like sitting at a kitchen table inside an actual kitchen, which is more or less what it is, busy packing off Grandma’s Humus and baba ganoush by the caseload for grocery stores and markets, putting a crew of 10 or so in constant motion.
Babaganus (their spelling, plucked from the tree of infinite spellings) is a 1960s mustard green, and the color played psychosomatic flavor tricks: Sharp and twangy like whole-grain mustard, pureed to almost the same consistency. It mellowed to sweet and nutty at the finish, like a pesto under the influence of garlic, sesame and lemon, the eggplant yin to the chickpea yang of hummus.
In the cafe, everything’s priced by the pound, and at $7.99 a pound for baba ganoush, hummus and gyros alike, I had little notion of what the three together on a plate might cost. MedChef’s answer: $7.99, and a value at that price. The gyro was loaded with tomato, sauteed onions, aromatic feta, torn Romaine lettuce, olives and a tzatziki sauce that pushed its way to the front with cucumber and a mouthful of dill. The meat fell in caramelized ribbons with a fleeting crunch and the tender, satisfying rush of lamb and beef. A super-gyro in all but the cape, the cape being a tough wheat pita grown stiff and disillusioned before its time.
(ABOVE, from left: A spinach pie and hot apple tea; baklava and Turkish coffee; beef-and-lamb gyro with hummus and baba ganoush. AT TOP: A falafel wrap with tabbouleh and dolmas.)
At its heart, falafel is an exercise in proper frying, and MedChef’s little pucks of chickpea and herb were like caramelized cornbread folded into a pita wrap with tart tahini, tabbouleh and hummus. But the wrap came off tough and dry, betrayed by the same leathery pita that hobbled the gyro. The MedChef’s tabbouleh carried more herb than a Colorado duffel bag, a dry stash punctuated by cracked wheat and tomato, a remedy for anyone not getting their Recommended Daily Allowance of parsley.
The shop hadn’t yet cooked its spinach pies one morning, but a beef pie did its yeoman’s share with the straightforward honesty of brown gravy, stewed meat, potatoes and garlic. It was baked into a rococo ring of poly-layered phyllo dough glazed with egg white and sculpted into what looked like a crown of meringue, a pie more visual effects than striking flavors. On another visit, the spinach pie in its phyllo rosette spoke a universal language of minced greens, twangy feta and sweet onion.
Turkish coffee is rare thing in Austin. Here it had the common touch of pre-mixed coffee and spices, left to a clever machine to brew. Except when the machine balked, and a mountain of a man in a hairnet brought a tiny porcelain cup and saucer to the table fresh from the kitchen, its sludgy sweetness a reliable companion to a square of baklava wearing its hard-candy phyllo layers like a cap and scarf. A dense block of soft-candy walnut and spice lay between the two, a textural underachiever rescued only by its sweetness.
(ABOVE: The Mediterranean Chef Cafe is the home of the farmers’ market favorite Grandma’s Humus.)
So what to have for dessert? A rebel might roll with a dolma, shaped with a confectioner’s care in defiance of a world in which so many dolmas are as tough as grape-leaf cigars, only not as tasty. Black currants wove a thread of sweetness kept in balance by an astringent counter-current of pine nuts, delivered in a culture of soft-focus rice and grape leaves whose leathery provenance had gone all velveteen dream. That might have been the tea talking, the hot apple tea that tasted the way Pottery Barn smells, like a Christmas sachet from a house where the people actually like each other, an aroma created by three teabags in a tiny pot, cardamom and a tiny rosebud. As in the actual flower; not the metaphor of misplaced innocence.
Even in the cafe’s cacophonous, working-kitchen environment, I was never treated like like an interloper; more like a fellow employee who was off the clock that day. The man who brought the Turkish coffee kept an eye on the handful of tables and gave a first-time guest a half-pint of hummus on the house. The house that Grandma’s built.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)