For many of us Westerners, the word “Babel” conjures the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, erected by Babylonians who aimed to reach for the heavens and incurred God’s wrath for their arrogance. But that’s not where Marwan Kandeel, the owner of De Babel — an upbeat Middle Eastern fast-casual in North Scottsdale — was going with the name at all. “Babel” is also the Hebrew word for Babylon, one of the ancient world’s most splendid cities, part of a once-great kingdom and therefore the seat of culture and fabulous food. Given the allusion, it’s safe to assume that Kandeel, who grew up in Jordan and spent 25 years in Dubai, operating corporate entities such as Cinnabon and Five Guys, aspires to Middle Eastern fast-casual greatness here, and he pretty much achieves it — despite the occasional misfire.
Not surprisingly, Kandeel zeroes in on aesthetics, elevating his strip mall space with black-framed photos of street scenes, artisans, foods, and places of worship across the Middle East. He also imports puffy, elastic pita from a 102-year-old bakery in New York, tucking both sandwiches and crispy, perfect hand-cut fries into paper sleeves that simulate old French newspapers. Expensive take-out bags, which say “thank you” in a dozen languages, are provided for leftovers. Classy stuff for a fast-casual indie.
PHOTO BY NIKKI BUCHANAN
Meanwhile, the culinary side is handled by Chef Suliman Saleem, a 25-year veteran of Middle Eastern cooking. His menu features classics such as falafel, shawarma and lamb kafta as well as oddball dishes and ingredient combos that suggest a modern, anything-goes approach. Would you expect truffle cheese fries, coleslaw or mushroom soup on such a menu? Me either, but who’s objecting? His fusion-y pita sandwiches, some smeared with green chile sauce, sound fun too.
Kandeel creates a made-to-order meat platter to give us a taste of everything, and while the grilled lamb cubes (tikka) and grilled chicken cubes (tawook) are both moist and tender, neither competes with lip-smacking grilled chicken wings, faintly sweet and juicy, or the kafta, so crazy-good I’m floored. Kafta — flattened, cigar-shaped meatballs formed with ground beef and lamb — has never aroused the faintest glimmer of interest in me, but this charred, juicy version, bursting with meaty flavor and almost sticky at the edges, is off the chain. Our platter also contains pink pickled turnips (sour and bitter at once), slivered sour pickles, grilled bell peppers and the perfect meat enhancer, sliced raw white onion with parsley. It’s only after the fact that I realize that a few of the sauces mentioned on the menu — particularly tahini and green chile — would have taken this meal to another level. We were brought dill-flecked tzatziki, bright, lemony aioli and a seriously hot red pepper sauce somewhere along the way and liked them all.
PHOTO BY NIKKI BUCHANAN
The hummus, fashioned into a bowl shape, filled with melting chickpeas and painted with paprika, is as beautiful as it is delicious — fresh, earthy and creamy. Smoky baba ghanoush, redolent with garlic, is just as good. For presentation, it’s dusted with sumac, given a sprinkle of juicy pomegranate arils, drizzled with olive oil, and poked with a mint leaf.
Tabouli, a mix of bulgur, parsley, herbs, lemon and olive oil, is Lebanon’s famously light but hearty salad, while in the Egyptian Fattoush, parsley becomes the “greens” for a salad composed of cucumber, radish, tomato and green onion, anointed with a lemon-sparked and faintly bitter pomegranate dressing. Stale, off-tasting pita chips sprinkled over the top ruin this one for me.
Aside from the kafta and the Babel wings, the outstanding dish of the day is preternaturally fluffy rice pilaf, aromatic with spices and faintly nutty tasting. We’re happy to be given a fragrant heap of it. Then again, piping hot falafel — crunchy on the outside, fluffy, herbal and earthy within — are exceptional too.
PHOTO BY NIKKI BUCHANAN
Love the shawarma sandwich, stuffed with a juicy beef and lamb mix slow cooked with tomatoes and onions. An avocado, hard-boiled egg and green onion sandwich is so fresh-tasting I snarf it halfway down before realizing it has neither the hummus nor the green chile sauce that drew me to it, just a slick of olive oil. Dang!
The only solid negative — a dreary hunk of baklava that lacks the abundance of honey and crisp phyllo (not limp cardboard) that would make it worth eating. Ugh.
I mostly love this place even though I’m annoyed my sandwich was lacking key components. If you’re going to have all kinds of fancy dips and sauces, make sure you serve them in or with dishes exactly as you describe them on the menu. But hey, for the most part, De Babel is de bomb.
14884 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale, 480-9991-2022, de-babel.com