Oasis Mediterranean Cafe and Pizza
Mon-Thu, 5-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm;
In all my time eating, I've never run across a restaurant with an Iranian menu before, and certainly not one that also serves a pizza called the "Mega Roni." Iran, which used to have the velvety, exotic name of Persia, happens to be a rather mysterious-sounding country, and Italian-Iranian is certainly an enigmatic combo. But in the case of the Oasis, it works. Just choose the theme for your evening and run with it.
The first time we went, we were most interested in the more far-flung side of the menu; we decided to forgo the mozzarella stick appetizer and begin with a side of bread, feta cheese, and fresh greens ($3.49). A thin block of fresh, tangy crumbled feta, biting radish slices, green onion sprigs, and breath-freshening parsley are meant to garnish a basket of hot, yeasty flatbread. Not knowing exactly what to do, we made open-faced sandwiches with the ingredients while we decided what to eat next.
It was a difficult task, both because of the variety on the menu and because the television was blaring a news segment about Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, a slice of Americana which contrasted with the framed photographs of the Middle East and the tapestry-covered tables. I finally selected a Chicken Kabob Plate ($9.99), with an extra skewer of Tender Beef ($5.99) on the side, and my guest ordered the Ghormeh Sabzi ($7.99), a bowl of beef and greens stew.
The proprietor, an Iranian-American who began making pizzas for delivery five years ago, has since expanded his business to include such things as the Ghormeh Sabzi, which he described as "good food, though some people don't have a taste for it." We did have a taste for it: Spinach leaves were stewed with kidney beans and chunks of tender, flaky beef, and an herb reminiscent of Indian cuisine (turmeric?) was the main flavor component. Without much salt or fanfare, the dish was comfortable, and we enjoyed sopping it into the large pile of fluffy, long and individualized grains of white rice crowned with a sunny glow of saffron-rice.
The same rice -- notable for its lack of goo, gum, or residual starch -- comes with the kabob plates. Rice this good can't be good for you, but it certainly tastes better than what can be considered the world's most tedious staple. The secret must have something to do with oil. It is possible to order a side of egg yolk to pour over the rice, Persian style, but that night the restaurant was out of eggs.
The kabob plates were everything that we'd imagined: a long train of extremely tender, lemony chicken pieces just off the skewer and a chain of well-seasoned beef strips. Each of the meats had been marinated in a grand fashion, and with the beef was perfect with a side of Yogurt Cucumber Sauce ($1.99) and the flame-broiled tomato, onion, and green pepper.
The flame-broiled onion and green pepper showed up during the next visit, too, as bits of toppings on the large, Oasis Combo Pizza ($11.99). I harbored reservations about the pizza at a restaurant where the specialty was surely Mediterranean, but the thin, light, homemade crust, a not-too-sweet sauce, and fresh toppings showed that the Oasis is indeed a viable pizzeria, too. We also tested the Greek Salad ($3.99), replete with delicious feta, fresh lettuce, non-mealy tomatoes, bits of pepper, and olive rounds. The greek dressing of red-wine vinegar and oregano harkened the Northeasters at the table back to the Greek-salad eating days of our youth. For me, the Greek salad is really the perfect marriage of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, because so many of the great pizzerias in my youth were run by Greek immigrants.
Other Greek specialities were the Gyro Sandwich ($4.25), a flatbread with strips of seasoned beef from a spit, tomatoes, and tuziki, a dilled yogurt and cucumber sauce. It may have been in comparision to the pizza, but the sandwich was not as flavorful as the rest of the items we'd tried. Unfortunately, the potato chips that came alongside the sandwich were too stale to eat, but otherwise, both meals were a success.
We finished the pizza with a piece of Baklava ($1.49), layers of phylo dough painted with butter, packed with nuts and spices, and doused with honey: a Mediterranean specialty. In a country with a region called the Salt Desert, a refreshing oasis is a welcome sight. This also happens to be the case in North Austin.
-- Meredith Phillips