Full disclosure: I've only lived here for (almost) 8 years, but sometimes certain places remind me of "the old Austin." Am I allowed to have these thoughts? Have I put in enough time here? (For the record, I was born in Austin. I left when I was pretty young. Do I still qualify for the card?) Either way, when I walked into the dimly lit Phara's on North Loop – or more accurately, when I stepped through the back door and onto the expansive patio, where groups of friends huddled around hookahs – I felt a pang of nostalgia and immediately wished I lived in Hyde Park so this place could be my regular hangout.
Let's start with Phara, the owner and namesake of the Mediterranean restaurant. I first walked in and was welcomed with her warm smile that felt like I was arriving at my aunt's house for a home-cooked meal. I asked if my date, who has celiac disease and can't tolerate gluten or any cross-contaminated foods, would be able to eat there. Phara went and consulted with the chef to make sure there wouldn't be any issues. She came back and assured that they did have gluten-free options and that they would be extra careful. I fetched my date from the parking lot. Then I mentioned it was our first time there, and Phara enthusiastically gave us a tour of all the different areas in which we could dine. Sensing my curiosity, she also showed us Christopher's Casbah, a separate dining space reserved for events, which is named after her son who battled cystic fibrosis until he passed away in 2004. (Phara holds periodic fundraisers for CF and lung transplant organizations in his memory.)
Upon entering the Sultan Room, a small enclosed area with low tables surrounded by floor cushions and colorful Egyptian tapestries, we knew we had found our spot. We pulled out the bottle of Malbec we had brought (Phara's is BYOB) and made ourselves comfortable while Phara fetched our server. A few moments later, Leonard burst into the room with a booming voice and neighborly demeanor. He asked who his gluten-free guest was, and promised to take special care of them. My date let Leonard know that in addition to having celiac disease, they were also vegan. He said he would double-check everything with the kitchen to ensure all bases were covered. He came back shortly with wine glasses and a bottle opener, and took our orders.
My date opted for (chef) Tenzin's Famous Aloo Chana, a dish of potatoes, garbanzos, and coconut milk, sans the couscous, tzatziki, and pita. I ordered the roasted lamb shank ("Phara's signature dish" according to the menu). It was a massive hunk of lamb perched atop couscous and grilled vegetables, and served with a choice of dipping sauces: cilantro-tomato, basil-mint, or habanero-garlic. I asked for a sampler of all three – I'm a bit of a condiment whore – and I'm glad I did. Each added a unique and bold flavor to the tender lamb and veggies. We shared the Aegean Salad – feta on the side – which came dressed in a zippy white balsamic vinaigrette and a generous pile of Kalamata olives. The fresh and tangy salad was the perfect contrast to our spiced, savory dishes.
I had heard there might be belly dancing and live music, but Phara informed us we came on a slow night; it was a Wednesday and neither were scheduled that evening. Still, the 400-seat venue exuded charm that I imagine is only enhanced by live entertainment. Phara's is not the place you go if you're in a hurry. You'll want to settle in and stay awhile – it's the perfect place for a second date – and you'll probably want to BYOBug repellent, too, if you're hanging out on the patio. The service might be on the slow side, but you won't mind. With a genuine hostess like Phara, a cozy bohemian decor offering lots of photo ops, and a BYOB policy which saves on the overall cost of the experience, Phara's will transport you to a bygone Austin era of funky ambience and soulful hospitality. (Now, just don't ruin it for us please.)
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