Hidden Gems for Your Lunch Hour

Three spots you might overlook, unless you work next door

The long upcoming summer is a good time for discovering local restaurants that remain under the radar. Here are three hidden gems I’ve been frequenting lately, each with its own distinctive character and ethnic charm, all easy on the pocketbook.

Shish Kabob House

This large, nondescript white-tablecloth restaurant does one thing well, and that’s grilled meat. It’s hard by Manan, an Armenian bakery in a West Flamingo Road mini-mall, so if you don’t fancy Shish Kabob House’s desserts, such as a workmanlike baklava, go next door and indulge.

You probably won’t have room, especially if you start by ordering an appetizer such as the eggplant dip called mutabel (a.k.a. baba ghanoush), or delicious, cigar-shape dolmas (rice and herb-stuffed vine leaves), both of which make nice precursors to the meats.

Chicken, lamb, beef, pork, salmon and the ground, spiced meat cylinders called lula kabob are all excellent here, beautifully marinated, exotically spiced, indulgently large and cooked to a turn, served with fluffy, fragrant rice and a side salad with tomato and onion. Ask for a shaker of somagh, a dark-brown powder made of dried sumac berries that acts somewhat like a squeeze of lemon on your meats. The best deal is the Combo Kabob, a huge meat fest of chicken, beef, lula and two lamb chops for $13.95.

6620 W. Flamingo Rd., 643-5454. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Lunch for two, $18-$30.

Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen

Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen isn’t really much of a big secret, as the charming Thai chef has built up a loyal Northside following over the past few years. But people outside of the neighborhood haven’t discovered her quite yet. They soon will.

The restaurant is a nicely decorated little bistro, and the food suits—fusion-y dishes based on Thai classics. Take her most popular dish, spinach salad, for example: more like a tempura of spinach leaves with a tart lime dressing. Sensational! The “tapas” menu has lots of surprises—delicate whitefish cakes, charred shishito peppers, lemon grass- rubbed Thai chicken wings.

From the entrée menu, try the spicy catfish or Emerald fried rice, laced with chicken, basil, green curry and green beans. The $11 lunch special—which includes a house salad, potsticker and entrées such as green curry chicken or the mouthwatering rice noodle pad see ew with pork—is a good deal.

2110 N. Rampart Blvd., 360-8885. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Sat, 4-10 p.m. Sun. Lunch for two, $16-$29.

Taco Taco

The latest taco emporium turning heads is Taco Taco for its $2 tacos doled out at stations along a cafeteria line. The portions are astonishing, so you probably won’t need to pile your plate too high at the house condiment bar, which is notable for the addition of both black and white beans, served warm at no extra charge.

If you have the stomach for tripas—that’s pork intestine to you—than Taco Taco’s version is a terrific: sloppy, intensely funky with the requisite organ meat buzz. There is also buche (literally pork stomach), which is less spongy—a Mexican gourmet’s choice, maybe—not to mention suadero, a less nasty, rose-color bit, cut from the breast of the cow.

Of course, we of the non-Mexican persuasion can rely on pollo (chicken), carne asada (broiled flank steak) and carnitas (oven-roasted pork), each of which make equally delicious, if less daunting, fillings for those fresh corn tortillas.

Did I mention the English was rather minimal here? Or that they pile onions, cilantro and salsa onto your tacos unless otherwise specified? Mexican street corn, slathered with a delicious blend of chili, limón and cotija cheese, is also $2 for one large cob. And don’t forget the Jarritos, Mexican soda in flavors such as guava and pineapple, so sweet that it will make your teeth hurt.

3430 E. Tropicana Ave. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 9 a.m.-midnight Fri-Sat. Lunch for two, $9-$17.

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Across from the hostess stand in Paymon’s Mediterranean Cafe & Lounge on Maryland Parkway is a little door hidden behind a plant stand. It leads into a tiny room, not much more than a closet, thick with the heady aromas of a Middle Eastern bazaar. The storage racks are stacked ceiling-high with bags and bottles of Turkish turmeric, Syrian Aleppo pepper and Persian sumac. A small counter offers some workspace alongside a modest spice-bottling machine. This is the start of Paymon Raouf’s next empire—this one built on the spice trade.