One of my favorite meal experiences involved a late night in Munich and a beer hall that was just about the only thing open in the city. I stumbled in and had a fantastic meal of sausages, potatoes, sauerkraut, and a fantastic beer. It was a meal that I will never forget.
Ever since that experience, I have always been on the look out for the various cuisines from central and eastern Europe. I have had some great Hungarian cooking and some yummy Czech bakery items. So, it was with great excitement that I found out that there was a Bulgarian restaurant in Phoenix. Since J. was in town, and the resident foodie, I thought this would be a great place to experience and review.
J. and I made our way to Mirage Grill & Bar in north Phoenix and just about drove past the place. It is housed in a large strip mall with a Kmart anchoring the whole thing. Next to Mirage is a dance club of some sort with plenty of security guards running around with Secret Service-type communication devices in their ears.
We parked the car and walk to the entrance. The first thing you notice about Mirage is that it has a Renaissance feel to it. Lots of rich earthen colors, tiles and other decorations. The interior is very dimly lit and the bar is against the far back wall with large tables scattered throughout the rest of the space, with the exception of a large open area in the center of the restaurant (for dancing, perhaps).
We barely took two steps into the restaurant before one of the host staff approached us. "It's Serbian night tonight," she said. "We will have music starting at 9:30 or 10 and there is a $10.00 cover charge unless you order dinner." No problem for us since we wanted dinner and thought the music was just a nice extra.
J. and I were seated in the back of the restaurant at a table that was meant to seat six comfortably. Looking around, there were very few other options for seating that were smaller. So we took a seat and waited while our host brought us menus. In a few minutes we had menus and water. I was straining to read the menu because the lighting, particularly in the back, was exceptionally dim.
Our server came by and asked for our drink order. We got a round of Diet Cokes and made our choices. We thought we would start with Sudjuk, a typical Bulgarian sausage ($5.95) and some Spice Peppers ($2.00) which the menu described as peppers with garlic and dill. J. wanted to try the Shopska Salad ($5.95) which featured tomatoes, onions, and feta cheese. I opted for the House Salad ($4.95) which featured Romaine lettuce, cucumbers, onions and feta cheese.
For our entrees, I was taken by the description of the Vreteno ($11.95), a pork tenderloin stuffed with ham, peppers, pickles and mushrooms. J. wanted to try the Shishlic ($11.95), a sort of Bulgarian shish kabob with pork, chicken and peppers.
Our sausage and peppers arrived fairly quickly and I liked the subtle taste of the sliced sausage. The taste of the sausage, however, was thoroughly drowned out by the Spicy Peppers, which we figured were overgrown jalapenos that had been soaking in oil. If there was garlic and dill used, we couldn't tell.
Our salads were brought shortly there after and J. was enjoying the large slabs of cheese and the vine ripe tomatoes. Unfortunately, I was less than impressed with my salad. It was super plain with a dressing of a few shakes of olive oil. I love feta cheese, olive oil, cucumber, onion and Romaine lettuce, but in this salad, they were simply boring.
We finished just as our entrees arrived. J.'s shishlic was a dramatic presentation to be sure. The kabob was on a long skewer that was standing upright in the middle of the plate and being held by a wooden dowel. Surrounding the skewer was a tangy cole slaw, a marinated white bean salad, steak fries and a sweet red pepper sauce. The presentation was beautiful.
My plate was not as fancy, but the stuffed pork looked very interesting and smelled wonderful. It was also accompanied by the same slaw, bean salad, and fries. The red pepper sauce was absent.
So, I dove in. Instant disappointment set in. The pork was tough. I cut a few bites and while it was edible, it was terribly difficult to enjoy while chewing this piece of leather. Also disappointing was the missing tastes of pickles and peppers and mushrooms. I could taste the ham, but that was about it. The melted cheese on top didn't help matters as it tasted like a slice of Kraft American Cheese.
The marinated bean salad was tasty and the cole slaw was very tangy. Both were fine. The big winner, however, was the steak fries. They were thick, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and perfectly salted. They didn't even need ketchup. They were excellent.
J. was pulling things off the skewer and seemed to be enjoying the meats on the skewer. I was given a taste and the thing I noticed right off the bat was the same toughness in the meat that graced my entree. It was tasty, but I don't want to spend 10 minutes chewing a piece of meat. J. thought the salads were decent and agreed with me that the best part of the meal were the steak fries.
We finished our meal as the restaurant was getting busy with members of the local Serbian community filtering in for tables and drinks. We received our bill and our total was $45.73 including tax.
Service was spotty as they clearly were all busy preparing for the arrival of the music and drinks crowd. On several occasions I had to flag down the waiter for more drinks or an extra napkin.
We left and walked back to the car being rather silent. I broke the silence. "Well, that was okay," I said. J. agreed and we discussed the meal. J. summed it up the best by saying, "There just wasn't any 'wow' factor." So incredibly true. It was, to be kind, one of the most boring meals I have ever had in my life.
I guess my expectations were too high. Maybe I had been spoiled by German sausages and sauerkraut or Hungarian goulash or the like. Who knows? I wondered if all of Bulgarian cuisine was like this. Sadly, I have been informed that most Eastern European food is fairly bland and boring.
If that is truly the case, I feel bad for our Bulgarian friends.
Mirage Bulgarian Grill & Bar
3345 West Greenway Road
Phoenix, AZ 85053
Dress: Business Casual
Note: Live music after 9:30 PM on weekends.