Dine & Dish#7: King Tut's is Virgin Territory.
When Sarah announced the theme for this month's Dine & Dish, I fired off an email to Matt, asking him where he thought we should go.
His reply: "Well, obviously it has to be somewhere not very good, chosen in the heat of the moment despite considerable advance planning, and where we'll regret having gone almost immediately."
He quickly followed this with: "My second choice would be someplace that changes completely after the first time you eat there."
See, this round, it was all about our first time; that new and special experience of...trying a new restaurant.
It wasn't the heat of the moment (oh, gawd; it was bad enough when Sarah got Madonna tunes stuck in my head, but now it's the guys from Asia!), but It was absolutely nothing like what we expected!
For the current Dine & Dish, we went to King Tut Grill, serving Egyptian and American fare.
I'd heard about Tut's a couple of years ago, but probably based on it's location, Matt and I just never got there. To go to Tut's, you have to have a reason: there's absolutely nothing else around, and it's a bit out of the way.
But let me tell you this: it's worth the drive.
It's possible that we had the best dining experience of our lives that night!
Tut's is housed in a tiny building at the corner of an intersection; if you didn't know it was there, you might drive right by. I remarked to Matt that it was just so small...
We drove through an alley to the left of the building, and found a parking area. A man was standing outside, finishing a cigarette. Matt said, "That must be Mo".
Mo. I'd read about Mo, the restaurant's proprietor. Words used to describe him were generally 'nut' or 'crazy'. After meeting him, though, I'd like to add 'full of life'.
We walked around to the front, and upon entering a voice welcomed us and said 'haven't I seen you somewhere before?'.
The interior of Tut's would be best described as...thrift shop chic, I suppose.
The walls, and even the ceiling, were covered with signs and photos and knick knacks. Cluttered, perhaps, but in a fun way.
We were instructed to take a seat (ignoring obvious joke here), and we chose a booth near the back. Mo himself sits at the table in front of us, and immediately before the kitchen door. We were given large, Tut-decorated, menus; menus filled not only with the specials, but trivia and jokes, as well as a hand-written page of Arabic-to-English phrases. Matt went all scholarly on me (I married an academic, so no surprise there), explaining words and meanings to me.
Mo runs the floor himself (I believe it's his wife who does the cooking), and we gave him our drink orders. Matt had a Coke, and a sweet tea for me.
I'd been warned about this is reviews, but had forgotten till our drinks arrived...Mo doesn't serve his beverages in glass or plastic cups. No, you get your drinks in flower vases!
The light hanging immediately over our booth played havoc with my camera, so images will be a bit distorted, just the same, I wanted to give some indication of scale here.
That's a regular-sized tube of Burt's Bees lip balm standing next to my drink!
Tut's also allows patrons to bring their own alcoholic beverages, which is what the family sitting behind us did (you'll see them later).
I mentioned that the walls are covered...this sign was hanging above our table.
The menu is small, but that's ok. Mo will tell you what you should order.
For us, it was "the best Greek salad in Knoxville, Tennessee, and an Egyptian platter, but you can have whatever you want".
I'll say this: if you go to Tut's? Share. Split your orders. The portions are, to be kind, generous.
We figured, the man knows his own food, so we took his advice, getting a Greek salad to share, and (our mistake) two Egyptian (vegetarian) platters.
When Mo says it's the best Greek salad in Knoxville, Tennessee, possibly in Eastern Tennessee?
He's not kidding.
Keep in mind, all photos were wrecked by the rather attractive lamp hanging directly over our table.
The salad was served on a regular-sized dinner plate, and had to be at least six inches high.
On the bottom were thick slices of very good tomato and red onion, then shredded lettuce in a flavorful but light dressing (couldn't figure out what he used), topped by the most amazing---both in taste and presentation---feta cheese. The feta was shredded. And it wasn't nearly as salty as most of the feta I've eaten before. Really good stuff.
This, in turn, was topped with diced hard-boiled egg and olives, and a jalapeno.
It was light, and good and...the best Greek salad I've ever had. So simple, but maybe that's what makes it so good.
Around the time we were finishing our heaping portions of salad, Mo brought out the first of our Egyptian platter dishes. Starting at the top, and going clockwise, the best dolma I've ever had, on a bed of tzitziki, babba ganoush that was so good, I cleaned the bowl (I hate eggplant!), and a very tasty hummus, served with pita wedges.
Matt, who has eaten dolma many times, and some of them where actually in the Mediterranean, thought they were fantastic.
I've only had it once or twice before, but wasn't too impressed. Until I had dolma at Tut's. Wow...Mo's wife really knows what she's doing. I'm a picky eater, and I adored the dolma.
As I mentioned, I hate eggplant. And since, in the minds of many people, vegetarians only eat pasta primavera and eggplant Parmesan, I've been faced with a lot of it.
I do keep trying it, though; I feel as though I could like it, if only I found the right preparation for it.
Tut's baba ganoush? That'll work!
It was just...perfect. I ate the whole thing.
Hummus, of course, isn't difficult to prepare, but the results can vary.
No surprise, the hummus served at Tut's was fabulous.
Before we'd even made a dent in our trio of dishes, Mo set a plate of Kushary in front of each of us.
I'd not heard of this dish, but I think I'd describe it as Egyptian comfort food.
Elbow macaroni, noodles and lentils, topped with a tomato sauce. Surprisingly good stuff.
The table was already crowded when Mo brought out the last of our meal, another three dishes. Ful , falafel, and a vegetable salad.
I've had ful once or twice before...Matt's parents are big on these kinds of dishes. And no shock, it was good.
But for me, it was all about the falafel.
Again, as a vegetarian, falafel is one of those things I'm supposed to eat.
But I come from a town that makes hunting season a tourist attraction, where no dish in any restaurant is served without meat; I wasn't going to find falalfel around there.
I first tried it from a boxed mix; it promptly went in the trash.
Another time, while still living in Oakland, I grabbed a veg-friendly tray from Whole Foods; hummus, falalfel...and something else.
Still didn't like it.
But I wanted to!
So, I gave the falafel at King Tut's a try. So glad I did.
Very crunchy on the outside, and warm and flavored strongly with cumin and coriander; it was perfect. This is what it's supposed to taste like!
The salad was nice; nothing spectacular, but a nice accompaniment to the ful.
So, Matt and I threw ourselves at this huge amount of food, while noticing all the nifty things decorating the walls.
Food pictures? Not so good. Interior shots? Much better. This is the wall facing me, and the door to the left leads to the kitchen.
This to my left.
So, a bit after we started eating, a family of eight (parents, kids, grandkids) arrived.
Mo is very involved with the customers, and he had fun with these guys.
At one point, he told the patriarch of the family that he must be new to Tut's, that he didn't realize that they were supposed to dress Egyptian when they come.
So, he promptly put a pharoah's hat on the guy! The family all got a kick out of it, and the man kept it on for most of the evening.
Another member of the family was outfitted with this mask...apparently, Mo has quite a few props!
Mo more-or-less left us alone, at least as far as dress-up went, and we think it's because we were a couple. Fine with me. He did sit down and talk with us for about fifteen minutes, though; we discussed chess and computers. That was neat.
Here's a picture of Mo; he did a pretty nifty magic trick for the little boy at the table.
We finally finished our dinner...although there was plenty left...and Mo suggested dessert. I passed, but I insisted Matt get the baklava; it's a favorite of his.
The front wall, with the entrance.
Mo pulled one of the guys from the table behind us (actually, he got this guy to come up, then the older fellow, as well...) to start the night's karaoke. Mo also turned on all the disco balls and flashing lights...pretty neat effect.
And while singing? The poor guy was dressed in a fake-boob baring French maid's apron. Oh, that Mo.
And then it was time to leave.
We had a marvelous time. The food was amazing, the atmosphere was welcoming and fun.
Matt and I agreed: should anyone come for a visit? We are taking them to Tut's!
King Tut's Grill
4132 Martin Mill Pike
Knoxville, TN 37920-3031
(Matt's included his own review)
There is no other restaurant like the King Tut Grill. Certainly not around
From the outside, the King Tut Grill is unassuming. In fact, it looks like
a hole in the wall. It's in a very small, old brick building which
probably started its life as a neighborhood bar, with a small gravel
parking lot in back and a somewhat faded sign in front. It's far from the
beaten path, and if you didn't set out to go there on purpose, you'd
probably never end up there. The interior is equally tiny. It probably
couldn't fit more than 30 people, and even then they'd have to be pretty
friendly with each other. The decor is busy and, to say the least,
ecclectic. All kinds of humorous signs, strings of shiny beads and
flashing lights, some framed photos, disco balls, a traffic light, a
stuffed deer head, and a karaoke machine in the corner.
The evening started fairly quietly after the owner, Mo, made some
recommendations. It appears that he does think about these things, because
he made different recommendations to the people at the table next to ours.
Perhaps sensing that we were a couple looking for a quiet night together,
Mo concentrated his attention on the larger parties at the other tables,
putting a pharoah's hat on a gray-haired man behind us, doing an extended
magic trick for his grandson, dragging them up for karaoke, and handing out
props (drums, a small accordian, etc.) so that they could accompany the
From reading reviews, you might think that Mo is at least very eccentric.
However, having finally been there, it's clearly more the case that he's
very friendly, very much an individual, and from a very different but
enthusiastic tradition of personal, involved hospitality. There's a lot of
personal attention at the King Tut Grill, and Mo managed to stop by every
table for a bit of conversation. And from the selection of main dishes and
the weight and style of side dishes, the food seems a lot more like a
home-cooked meal than a restaurant meal. Certainly, not every home has
flashing disco lights, helpful primers on Arabic, or head-and-shoulder
troll masks at the dinner table, but Mo is clearly doing everything he can
to make sure you're having a good time.
But, and this is the important question, how is the food? Very good, it
turns out, so a night at King Tut's isn't just a fun, whacky few hours. It
offers a mix of fairly traditional American and Middle Eastern food, but
there's a different, if fairly short, menu for each night of the week.
Western dishes includes things like grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers,
and grilled chicken, apparently served with a bunch of vegetables (the King
Tut Grill appears to be very big on non-meat side dishes). But I suspect
Mo isn't big on the Western food. A little while after someone at another
table ordered a hamburger, Mo dropped by to update him on the situation:
"My wife has gone to Burger King. She will return soon."
Following Mo's recommendation, we had the Greek salad and the Egyptian
sampler. Mo repeatedly told people it was the best Greek salad in
Knoxville, and I'm not inclined to disagree. It's pretty simple: chopped
iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, and grated (not crumbled) feta, with a very
light dressing and a few olives on top. It's the feta that does it; it's
remarkably un-salty, and the whole thing was light enough that we were able
to eat most of the very large salad without being overwhelmed. The
Egyptian sampler is a mix of traditional Mideastern dishes: hummus (served
in a proper Middle Eastern manner, decorated with drizzles of olive oil and
a sprinkling of paprika), babaganoush (Mo, or at least his family back in
the kitchen, performed the miraculous feat of rendering eggplant edible),
dolma (very lemony, served on a dill-heavy tzatziki), falafel (very
crunchy, leaning much more strongly towards cumin and corriander than
parsley, served on a bed of what I think was tahini and lemon), a salad of
tomatoes and cucumber, ful mudammas (served a bit plainer than I'm used to,
but it was a small dish with little room for garnishes), and kefiri (a
traditional Egyptian dish consisting of macaroni and lentils with a tomato
sauce, remarkably light considering that it's nothing but starch), all
surrounded by bunches of pita. It's probably nothing you haven't had a
hundred times before, but it's clear that it's being made by people who are
coming from a particular tradition of doing it themselves and eating it
every day. Consequently, several of the dishes are among the best examples
I've had of that kind, and those which weren't at least have the virtue of
being distinctive regional or local variations on the theme rather than the
same old generic stuff you always have.
Something we didn't know about, but will account for next time we go (and
there *will* be a next time), is the portion size. Mo recommended that we
order one salad and one sampler and share them. We ordered one salad and
two samplers. This was not a good idea. The salad covered a dinner plate
and was piled high enough to be more or less hemispherical. The individual
portions in the sampler were smaller, but with seven different dishes plus
pita, it was more than enough for a meal on its own. The same was true for
the drinks. The selection included what you usually find at restaurants:
sodas, iced tea, etc. However, they're served in what appear to be
repurposed flower vases. So instead of getting a pint glass which has to
be refilled every now and again through the course of a long meal, you get
a liter or so of whatever you're drinking, which lasted us through the
Blog Party#15 is this Saturday, and this month, we're hitting the books! That's right, we're taking inspiration from our favorite stories and turning them into appetizers and cocktails! your dishes are due no later than TOMORROW, 19 October...early is always good...and get your links to me either by posting in the comments, or by emailing me at thehappysorceress at gmail dot com. I'll post the party round-up Saturday, the 21st. Hope to see you there!
Tagged with: Food and Drink + Dine & Dish + Events + Restaurants + Egyptian