The kosher and the not so kosher

By Howard Seftel — The Arizona Republic, Food & Drink, Restaurant Review, Page FD1 — Apr. 4, 2007 
My father's corny 1957 New York joke suddenly seems appropriate in 2007 Phoenix.

An archaeologist on a dig shouts to his colleagues, "Come quick. I've uncovered the remains of an ancient Jewish community."

The group gathers round.

"How can you tell?" someone asks.

"See for yourself," he says, pointing. "I've found two Chinese restaurants."

If you grew up back East and Jewish, you know this tale has more than a whiff of truth. My family attended Sunday services at our Chinese restaurant way more religiously than we attended Saturday services at our temple. On Christmas Day, while other families were unwrapping presents, we were wrapping moo shu pork. (Chinese restaurants were the only ones open.)

One wonders what conclusions future archaeologists will draw when they dust the earth off Segal's and find a rabbinically certified kosher Chinese menu.

Last September, after 40 years, Zalman Segal and son David sold their market-restaurant. The buyers were brothers Levi and Abram Babakhanov, and their brother-in-law Albert Yusupov. Experienced restaurateurs, the men are part of the Valley's growing Bukharian Jewish community, originally from Uzbekistan in Central Asia, who first settled in New York before heading west. (The Segals have stayed on to help them out.)

Naturally, the Chinese offerings are limited: Kosher law forbids eating staples like pork and shellfish. What's left are soups ($2.50), beef and chicken combo plates with egg roll and fried rice ($10.95), veggies ($5.95) and noodles ($6.95). Observant Jews, naturally, are thrilled. But the Valley's other Chinese restaurants don't exactly have to fear a customer exodus.

The two main problems are the sodium-bomb sauces - soy vey! - and the absence of Chinese spices like ginger, five spice and garlic. That's why dishes like orange beef, Szechwan beef, moo goo gai pan and General Tso's chicken are so consistently one-dimensional. Soups and noodles are better: Wonton soup, hot and sour soup and chicken lo mein approximate what you'd get elsewhere. But meatless plates like yu shan vegetables and eggplant with tofu will interest only what must be a very small subset of kosher vegetarians.

However, traditional Eastern European fare remains an option, and as you might imagine, Segal's is on surer footing here. Chicken soup with matzo ball ($4.95) is all it should be, flecked with carrot and celery and, mercifully, not too salty. If you've never had kosher chicken, then you don't know how wonderfully flavorful, moist and tender this poultry can be. Segal's roasts up an herb-scented half-bird ($12.95), accompanied by rice and broccoli. Meanwhile, the half-pound burger topped with pastrami ($11.95) on an oversize egg bun is worth every one of its zillion fat grams. But the kitchen has no clue about pasta primavera ($12.95), a mess of greasy onions, peppers, mushrooms and practically raw zucchini tossed with inedible veal sausage over spaghetti.

At the same time they brought in Chinese dishes, the new owners ought to have brought in a feng shui expert to upgrade the dining atmosphere. The restaurant area, set behind the market, is astonishingly grim: gunboat gray walls, plastic chairs, ceiling fans that cry out for a dusting and a view of the back of the meat cases.

Segal's next international food experiment: kosher sushi. Wasabi-dabbed spicy corned-beef roll, anyone?

Segal's tasty chicken soup with matzo ball comes flecked with carrot and celery

Meanwhile, next door . . .

Make no mistake: That restaurant archaeology joke would be just as apt using, "I've found two Italian restaurants" as the punch line. Along with wonton soup, chow mein and egg rolls, the Jewish-American nutritional pyramid also rests on a base of pizza, pasta and parmigiana.

At King Solomon's, next door to Segal's, those building blocks are all made strictly by the book. Two books, actually: the Old Testament, where kosher laws are spelled out, and the Joy of Cooking, which Uzbeki proprietor Nathan Uvaydov keeps behind the counter.

He does a righteous pizza ($11.99, 14 inches), with a New York-style thin, crisp crust, lots of cheese and a light toss of sauce. (It's also available by the slice.) No complaints about the calzone ($6.99), either, a hefty mass of baked pizza dough oozing mozzarella and ricotta. If you get it to go, ask Uvaydov to tape the bag firmly shut. I didn't, and ended up eating half of it on the way home.

Uvaydov has a feel for eggplant parmigiana ($7.99): big, thick slabs of oily, breaded eggplant coated with cheese and sauce. The baked ziti ($8.99) displays true-believer faith in the simple pleasure of a mound of pasta smothered in cheese and baked bubbling golden brown. That faith is rewarded.

But he isn't quite as assured when he moves out of Italy into the Middle East. Falafel ($5.99) is fresh, crispy and a bit dry, while the Israeli salad ($4.99) showed no sign of the "special spices" that might have brought this dull mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions to life.

While King Solomon's isn't as dismal a place to eat as Segal's, the design aesthetic might be called "functional minimalism." Decor highlights include the white-board menu and soft-drink dispenser. The best view here is whatever is on your plate.