Heavy Table readers are known for steering us in the right direction, so when one tipped us off to Ariana Kabob and Gyro Bistro a few weeks ago, we didn’t hesitate long before heading to a St. Louis Park strip mall that, truthfully, has seen better days. Perhaps Ariana is the boost the strip needs — its fresh, flavorful take on Mediterranean favorites has a lot to offer hungry west-enders who aren’t afraid of a little heat (and are looking for halal meat).
Because if you start out with an order of samosas ($5, above), which you should, you’re going to need a glass of water nearby. The triangles of fried filo dough are stuffed with a savory onion-and-pea mixture that’s delightfully soft and spicy. The side of cucumber sauce doesn’t completely temper the heat but offers a pleasing contrast to the samosa filling. The hummus ($7.99 as an appetizer) is considerably tamer but still satisfying, avoiding the horrible pastiness that so much American-made hummus suffers from with its light, nutty texture. The warm pita that accompanies the hummus is top-notch, too — a few grill marks prevent the bread from becoming too doughy.
Most entrees come in the form of kabob platters or sandwiches, and while the sandwiches seem like the better value with most around $8, the pricier platters offer enough food for two to share or one to save for another meal. The classic gyro sandwich ($8, above) folds in tender, well-seasoned chunks of beef and lamb smothered in tzatziki, providing a hearty mouthful of fragrant flavors. While the sandwich tastes perfectly balanced, ordering the same meats as kabobs ($14, at top) reveals the lamb to be slightly dry when there is no tzatziki to add moisture. The beef, on the other hand, is cooked perfectly, with its extra juices flavoring the accompanying Afghani bread (imagine foccacia but with caraway seeds replacing rosemary) and Afghani brown basmati rice studded with carrots, raisins, and more heat.
The falafel offers a parallel experience. Ordered as part of the veggie platter ($16.50), the chickpea patties are chock-full of green herbs but border on dry. But in a sandwich ($8) slathered with tzatziki and freshly chopped tomatoes, red onions, and cucumber, the falafel is hearty, non-greasy and filling. (That pillowy pita makes a pleasantly chewy base, too.) But if you’re keen on carbs and side dishes, the platter is your best bet, with your choice of two kinds of rice (choose the Afghani and saffron), samosas, expertly stewed spinach, and dahl. The dahl comes across as a bit bland and one-note, but the zesty spinach more than makes up for it.
For dessert, stick with baklava ($2.75 for a modest wedge, above) and all its sticky sweetness. The shir berenj ($2.50), a rice pudding topped with pistachios, emits such a strong floral aroma — rosewater, perhaps? — that it’s difficult to swallow the pudding without feeling like you’re inhaling baby powder.
A popular take-out place, Ariana has several tables among rich purple walls and Mediterranean decor for diners, and there are benefits to dining in. The french fries that comes with every sandwich arrive hot and crispy from the kitchen but suffer mightily during even a short drive home. You also get a more accurate read on the day’s menu — many items on the website don’t appear on the overhead menu boards, so if you have your heart set on a certain item (we really wanted to try that chocolate baklava roll), you might be disappointed when you call in your order. While service isn’t as fast as your typical fast-casual joint, the wait isn’t off-puttingly long (though if it’s busy, the servers may try a few tables before getting the food to the correct table).
Without much to tempt diners except Little Caesars and a Szechuan restaurant, the corner of Cedar Lake Road and Louisiana Avenue in St. Louis Park could use an Ariana. Like with Aida in Richfield, don’t let a shabby exterior prevent you from enjoying the high-quality eats inside.
Ariana Kabob and Gyro Bistro
Mediterranean and Afghani food in St. Louis Park
7115 Cedar Lake Rd S
St. Louis Park, MN 55426
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $8-16.50