A quandary at tangerine House of Kabob

It's from the streets, man!

click to enlarge Here's the fire-roasted joy of a street vendor's spit of doner kabob lamb. Tangerine's version isn't quite as nice. - P. Vasiliadis
P. Vasiliadis
Here's the fire-roasted joy of a street vendor's spit of doner kabob lamb. Tangerine's version isn't quite as nice.

There's a simple rule that needs to be followed When a single food item is listed on the marquee of a restaurant, built into the actual name of the place: Do that item right. And if you're charging more for that food than what people would expect to pay at a stripped down corner restaurant or roadside stand, you need it to be commensurately better. Common sense, right?

At Tangerine House of Kabob — or kebap, kabab, kebob, kibob, kebhav or kephav, depending on your linguistic heritage — the culinary focus is on meat slapped on a skewer, from basic cuts of chicken and beef to ground meat sausages, grilled and served with accompaniments of rice or pita. There are a few other Persian items on the menu, ranging from stuffed grape leaves to stewed leg of lamb, but it all circles around a core of kabob.

Although it's possible for a kabob to be elevated into more rarefied cuisine, most people around the world have experienced this dish served by sidewalk vendors. In Germany, the doner kabob is the quintessential street food, sliced from a rotating spit and crammed into puffy flatbread for a portable meal. Variations are served throughout the Middle East and Europe, but no matter where you order it the idea always revolves around well-seasoned meat with some caramelization from a griddle, flame or heating element.

Order a kabob plate at Tangerine and you'll receive more trappings than are available on the street: roasted veggies, fluffy basmati rice, tabuli bright with lemon and chopped parsley. But where's your focus? Always on the meat.

What I'm building to, of course, is the disappointment that comes with my first bite of the main ingredient here at this new restaurant on Kennedy Blvd. Tangerine's koobideh (ground) chicken kabob is a pallid slab of meat, with flavor to match. There's little seasoning worked into the homemade sausage and no texture to speak of. It's cooked, sure, but couldn't I ask for a few spots of caramelized flesh to concentrate the meager amount of salt and provide a bit of crunch?

Move to simply sliced beef tenderloin and the problem is even worse. The meat is tender and thin enough to be soft, but the flavor is drastically subdued. It's like taking a great steak, underseasoning it, then baking it until it's cooked through. Still good meat, but the restaurant hasn't done the value-added work necessary to make it into something exciting.

Tangerine's lamb dishes are much better, thanks largely to the gamey flavor inherent in that meat. A little salt goes a long way when you're dealing with lamb, although more — and better cooking — would have elevated it from merely adequate to something worth getting excited over.

Oh, there are sauces on the side, and in that Tangerine has a more accomplished hand. The blend of ground dried pepper, herbs and salt is a necessity for adding interest to whatever meat you order, and a tangy yogurt sauce can brighten the subdued flavors of the kabobs. Still, why not start with those elements and build on them, instead of making the main dish a blank slate relying on diner-applied extras?

Starters at Tangerine are better across the board. Grilled eggplant in a variety of forms — from smoky baba ganoush rich with tahini and zingy lemon juice to egg-battered eggplant kabobs — are uniformly tasty, as are grape leaves stuffed with rice and lentils, which give the dolmeh a pleasantly firm bite.

Where Tangerine really has the potential to shine, however, are in its lunch specials. Then, those same pallid kabobs served at dinner are crammed into a pita with enough extras to mask their blandness, at a price — just over $5 — that's more appropriate for the quality. And the restaurant space is actually quite beautiful, with a bar and a few tables in the downstairs portion and a brightly painted upstairs dining room that's focused on a giant television showing Middle Eastern pop music videos. And Shakira, oddly enough.

Are Tangerine's kabobs more elegant than the street food versions? Sure. Which is a problem. Maybe, instead of trying to turn this simple meat on a stick into something worth charging $15 a plate, the restaurant should start with what works at lower price points, and build on that.

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