Health Check: Haji Baba Middle Eastern Market (Tempe, AZ)

Despite doing most of my growing up in Arizona, once I graduated from high school I pretty much immediately moved across the country for school, and haven’t lived there in almost 30 years. However, I still have a small stable of favorite restaurants from my years living there that I like to revisit on occasion. Many of those places I used to love are now gone (like Apache Junction’s The Mining Camp, which closed after a fire back in 2015), or some of even sadly morphed into poorer versions of themselves, but there’s a good number of places like The Chuck Box that manage to soldier on, even as the neighborhood around them changes (the Box, for example, is now dwarfed by high rise buildings built by ASU).
Every once in a while it’s nice for me to do a followup on old favorites, revisiting them and make sure that they are staying in form. With that in mind, when I was passing through town on a recent business trip, meeting up with my friend Karla for another trip to Haji Baba was in order.

Haji Baba is located on Apache in east Tempe, an area that’s changed more than a little since I first started going there. Apache (named after the old Apache Trail) forms the south side of Arizona State University, but growing up, once you got east of campus, Apache was mostly small, dusty strip malls, industrial warehouses, auto repair stores, and the occasional discount retailer. Oh, and the occasional interesting restaurant, like Haji Baba, or a few pho joints and cheap Mexican places. However, in 2005, a watershed event happened for this slightly depressed part of town, Valley Metro, the Phoenix area’s light rail, got voted in, and the eastern branch of the rail line is routed directly down Apache (which becomes Mesa’s Main Street). Eventually, this resulted in massive redevelopment along the light rail corridor, and much of Apache in Tempe now barely resembles its previous self, with new condos, apartment blocks, and businesses catering to these new developments showing up all along the corridor.

However, Haji Baba remains almost delightfully unchanged. It still retains the same basic ambiance, which comes from the fact that Haji Baba’s is actually at least as much of a Middle Eastern supermarket as it is a restaurant: more of the store is dedicated to market sales and shelving, with the restaurant hanging off the side. But the market still does a brisk business in food for both eat-in and delivery, with a variety of gyros, kabobs, shawarma, grape leaves, babaghannoj, and other Middle Eastern treats.

There are two particular items that have always brought me back to Haji Baba. The first is the hummus. I’ve had a lot of hummus at different places, and the hummus at Haji Baba remains a favorite. While some hummus ends up having a slight chalkiness, the hummus here is shockingly smooth and silky. It’s also got a slightly more notable sesame oil flavor to it, and a much, much bolder roasted garlic note, and the overall combination is a delightful hummus that’s got quite a bit of flavor in it.

My other absolute favorite is the chicken shawarma. I’m not sure exactly how they get such good results, but they start with a heavily-marinated chicken with particularly strong notes of garlic, cumin, and turmeric, roasting it on a vertical spit until it is just starting to sizzle. Carving it off in strips and chunks, serving it up with a delicious (but very bold) garlic mayonnaise, a nice toasted pita, and generous portions of rice, hummus, and tabouleh, this is pretty much one of the best Middle Eastern lunch plates I know of, and the combination of the flavorful, perfectly crisped chicken dabbed in the garlic mayonnaise is one of those perfect flavor combinations.

But the rest of the menu is no slouch, either. My friend Karla is vegetarian, and instead opted for the vegetarian combo, with a generous pile of tabouleh, some more hummus, a hefty pile of babaghannoj, and some stuffed grape leaves. Everything there was delicious as well, with Karla taking home more than a few leftovers.

We also got an order of Foul Moudammas (fava beans), and the version at Haji Baba is one of the more soup-like variants, and it’s a really flavorful combination of tender beans, tangy sauce, and spice notes (mostly garlic and cumin). We all enjoyed it.

While the entire neighborhood has had almost a seismic shift in its makeup, it’s heartening to see that an old favorite is still producing food that’s as good as ever, still with bold flavors (especially the garlic), good execution, generous portions, and great service. I’ll continue to visit on my trips back.

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