Sunday, June 24, 2012


In the midst of downtown Traverse City rests Zakey, an oft overlooked culinary paradise.

So, today, while wandering through my lovely downtown Traverse City, I was stopped by a poor, unfortunate soul. What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that a very nice lady pulled up next to me and asked "Where would the nearest Subway be?"

Reluctantly, I obliged. But, not before I pointed out that one of the very best sandwiches in town could be had at a certain restaurant that many folks tend to overlook, as it is surrounded by some of Traverse City's most well known eateries (Subway is most definitely NOT one of these well known eateries, FYI). After describing the intense awesome-ness that is the fare at this particular joint, the nice lady smiled sheepishly and stated that she wasn't quite that adventurous.

Inside, I cried a little.

Surrounded by Traverse City's finest dining, many folks make the mistake of passing by the joint with the Middle Eastern music.

What was this far too exotic locale? Traverse City's own little piece of the Middle East, Zakey!

The poor Subway bound lass was missing out on some of my favorite downtown food.

Upon entering Zakey, one is transported. This does not feel like a Traverse City restaurant. The small TVs feature a strangely engrossing MTV like channel (from back when MTV actually played music). The music seems to be popular Middle Eastern in genre and serves to add to the authenticity of this joint. Personally, I love it. The music, combined with the whir of the ceiling fans (reminiscent of an open air market) and the slightly campy decor all come together to bring you an outstanding and truly Middle Eastern dining experience.

In short, yeah, a little corny, the music's not for everyone and if you're in there on Saturday's, you'll probably get some belly dancer action. I love it.

The decor is distinctly not Traverse City at Zakey, but in a good way!

Earlier, I mentioned something about a sandwich. Remember that? Yeah. Well, it's time to talk about that sandwich, and a bunch of other outstanding menu selections! Because, when you get right down to it, it's not the music or the decor that makes this place. It's the food.

The belly dancing isn't just on the walls here. On most Saturdays, live belly dancing is included with the meal!

Let's explore the menu, shall we?

We'll begin at appetizers. There's the familiar - Fried Chicago Cheese, Calamari, and Hummus.

There's the not-so-familiar - Mazza Plate, Stuffed Grape Leaves, and Spinach Pie.

And there's the pure awesomesauce! - Baba Ganouge, Tat Belay and Kibbeh.

These appetizers are all priced swell. Prices range from $4-$7.

If you're not sure which to pick, go with the Kibbeh! It's bulgar, cinnamon, onion, lamb and pine nuts served baked, with cucumber yogurt salad. Yum! All for only $6!

Moving onto the salads, these guys range from $6-$8 and are all Middle Eastern themed. My favorite is the Falafel salad. It comes with three falafel balls served on lettuce topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and tahini sauce. A grand bit of veg for only $8.

By the way, the prices here? Yeah, they're some of the very best in downtown Traverse City! The amazing quality of the food at Zakey could easily command a higher price tag, especially given this restaurant's center-of-downtown location.

Anyway, sandwiches! These creations range from $6-$7 and are, in my opinion, the highlight of the menu!

That favorite sandwich of mine that I spoke of earlier is the Shawarma. One can choose lamb or chicken (go with lamb) served in the house spices, with garlic and fresh lemon juice, broiled, topped with fresh onion, parsley, sumac and tahini sauce as well as Arabic salad. My mouth is currently watering. Wow, I love this thing!

If that isn't your bag, baby, no worries, Zakey has plenty of sandwich selections, all with a Middle Easter flare, of course.

Chef Nabiel Musleh serves up some favorites from his homeland at Zakey in Traverse City.

Now we're into the Entrees. These bad boys range in price from $9-$16 and come with pita bread and your choice of two sides listed on the menu.

Highlights of the entree menu include Roasted Lamb (marinated in olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon juice) for $13 and the Palek Paneer (Indian cuisine - spinach, onion, garbanzo beans cooked together with exotic spices, topped with cheese and served with rice and naan bread) for $14. Again, if neither sound grand, no worries, there are other selections!

There is also a kid's menu offering a few kid friendly items for children 12 and under, all for $3.

Oh! And don't forget dessert! The Baklava is outstanding here! $5 for three pieces!

Located in the midst of downtown Traverse City, Zakey's tables offer some grand people watching!

Zakey encourages you to let staff know if you're allergic to anything before ordering. I would follow that advice. As far as "exotic dining" goes, this place is near the top for most folks here in TC. This isn't Applebees folks, this is real food, prepared by a REAL chef whose intent is to give you a little taste of his homeland. For me, that's everything! Allowing someone to take me on a culinary expedition is one of the great joys of my life. I am lucky enough to not be allergic to anything. For those of your that aren't that lucky, let these folks know before your excursion begins!

If you have the choice, skip the generic crap, hit up Zakey!

Now, granted, Traverse City is about as far removed from the Middle East as one can possibly be. The flavors and combinations that you will find within Zakey's kitchen are quite foreign to the average casual diner. And that is why you must go! Life is about experience. If you do not allow your senses to be tantalized on a daily basis (multiple times daily, actually), then you are not living life! A trip to Zakey in downtown Traverse City will not only give you such a tantalization, it'll also allow you to dip your toe into some true Middle Eastern culture.

Whether your shopping, wandering, beaching or movie going, Zakey is a stop that you need to make! Oh, and if you do make that stop, be sure to bring mints! One's breath is not always rosy upon paying the bill and checking out.

(All photos by Brooks Vanderbush)

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