Austin is fond of Mediterranean cuisine, as evidenced by the "Texas-izing" of certain specialty foods (turbo hot falafel, jalapeño hummus) and by the fashionable pita bread "wraps" of local deli and fast food acclaim. Really, the popularity of Mediterranean food here is no surprise; items like hummus, dolmas, and falafel make good use of Austin mainstay staples beans and rice. What's more, Mediterranean food is flavorful and cheap, criteria for prevailing upon any college town.
Austin has also developed a taste for Mediterranean food that hasn't been reworked for the local palate. Two pita favorites around town: the gyro, marinated and spiced shavings of lamb dressed with yogurt sauce, tomato, and lettuce; and schwarma, shavings of chicken or beef and tahini sauce, dressed the same. One place to get these items, and more, is Kismet Cafe.
Kismet doesn't serve the best Mediterranean food in Austin, but it's decent and a nice alternative to your average university-area lunch. In particular, the sandwiches here are a deal: They are savory, filling, and cheap (all run around $3.50). The kafta kebob is a pita sandwich with lean ground beef and parsley, assertively seasoned and complemented by cool lettuce and tomato, and a lemony tahini dressing. The gyro and schwarma here are skimmed to order from basting, vertical rotisseries. They make a quick, gratifying lunch to go.
Some "survey" platters offer more in-depth tastes of the still largely ethnic menu, packing large amounts of a variety of food in at a good price. The appetizer platter called the Mezze ($6.50) includes vegetarian dolmas, hummus, tabouli, falafel, kibbe, and eggplant dip. It serves one for a meal and as many as four for appetizers. The Vegetarian Sampler ($6.50) pairs the same dolmas, hummus, and tabouli, with cauliflower and zucchini.
Some of Kismet's sampled specialties worked better than others. Out of the assorted items, I liked the tabouli, kibbe, and falafel the best. The tabouli -- a cool bulgur and herb salad -- was especially good, overloaded with fresh herbs and dressed lightly with olive oil. The kibbe -- lean but moist meat, onion, and ground pine nuts in a crispy wheat shell -- and the falafel -- seasoned chickpea patties -- were both fresh and greaseless. Kismet serves each in nuggets on the mezze platter, in addition to featuring both items in sandwiches. The hummus and eggplant dip lacked finesse -- the hummus was heavy on the tahini and the eggplant tasted bitter -- but they were both helped with a generous squeeze of lemon that I stole from my iced tea.
Less to my liking were the zucchini sauté, dolmas, and cauliflower. The zucchini, with tomato, onion, and garlic, is a filling vegetable and one best reserved for a cool day when your body won't reject the excess oil. The dolmas featured brined grape leaves wrapping mushy, bland filling. The cauliflower, withered from (my guess is) a deep fry, smacks the tongue with a concentrate of spice and grease. Though its portion is modest, it mocks the light lunch.
Even with its impressive selection of ethnic items, Kismet's menu actually includes fewer Mediterranean specialties than it did upon opening a year ago. I tried to order the stuffed eggplant, Lebanese salad, and rice pudding, only to find that all of them had been taken off the menu long before my visit. Lack of interest in these items was the apparent reason for their disappearance. Still, the Mediterranean menu is complete enough; baklava and guava nectar are sold as potential accompaniments to a full, quick ethnic meal.
Admittedly, on each of my visits, I steered clear of tasting the American fare on Kismet's menu. The Mediterranean food I sampled did more to readily distinguish the place. But though I was not enticed by the Chicken Caesar, tuna, and turkey avocado wraps or by Kismet's versions of the cheesesteak and veggie sub, I noted their popularity. Anyway, I suspect it's the ethnic sandwiches that give locals the most reasons to return. They taste good, cost little, and come large. The other specialty items that I tasted may not dazzle the experienced Mediterranean palate, but they pose as fine alternatives to chips for a sandwich side.
Kismet occupies a small space across from UT. It is comfortable, with large, nicely finished wood tables that allow ample room for a lunch tray. Even though Kismet packs the tables tightly to accommodate a nice lunch crowd, at midday, as many students stand waiting to sit as are already settled to eat. Join UT employees at the Kismet around 11:30am if you plan to sit for lunch. Students pack the space full any time after noon and stray in throughout the day. For those who don't beat the crowds or don't travel close to UT, you can visit their full-service restaurant of the same name in San Marcos.
-- Ronna N. Welsh