When you go to Pharaohs Palace, I hope that Sam Abdelaziz is there to greet you. Sam will enthusiastically tell you all about the restaurant that he opened in Alpharetta last year with his nephew, Ahmed Zayed. I imagine he’ll tell you that, to the best of his knowledge, it’s the only Egyptian restaurant in Georgia.
Maybe he’ll explain the backstory: That he decided to open Pharaohs Palace after having lived 40 years in the U.S., brought to this country because of a career in the airline industry, and that he settled in Atlanta in 1995 when he came aboard with Delta. By the fall of 2018, the Suwanee resident was ready for something new. Pharaohs Palace was born from his desire to share with his adopted country the flavors of his native Egypt.
Maybe he’ll tell you about the pharaohs and gods depicted in artwork that hangs on the pitch-black walls in this boxy, 50-seat eatery, with space reserved for live music, karaoke and belly dancing.
Sam will surely tell you about the food, how certain items may be familiar to you as an eater of eastern Mediterranean food, but that particular ingredients or methods of preparation distinguish these dishes as Egyptian.
Sam didn’t wait on me. My service was delivered by a rather inexperienced waitstaff that sometimes disappears for long stretches. It was after I ate at Pharaohs Palace, when I talked to Sam on the phone, that I learned details about this family-run business and the gracious dishes that Chef Anis is preparing in the kitchen, and that gave my dining experience added gratification.
Eggplant is a key ingredient in Egyptian cooking. Enjoy it from the start with an order of moussaka, a mix of eggplant and bell peppers sauteed in tomato sauce. The carte at Pharaohs Palace isn’t exclusively Egyptian; if you want more eggplant, keep going with Moroccan zaalouk, another chilled eggplant appetizer: smoky, tomatoey and garlicky.
The staff might not tell you that you can choose three from among the first five dishes listed on the affordable mezza menu (items are between $8 and $13) and turn them into a $10 small-portion sampler. Besides the moussaka and zaalouk, the hummus is a fine choice. Their version of this chickpea dip is super smooth, laced with garlic and the tang of lemon juice, topped with a puddle of olive oil and scattering of fresh parsley. Scoop up all three spreads with pita.
Egyptian falafel is unique, Sam will tell you, because it’s not made from a base of chickpeas. Ta’ameya, as it is called, is traditionally made from fava beans, which give the fried rounds a distinctive green tinge. At the restaurant, they use a 50-50 combination of chickpeas and fava beans, and shape the cooked, ground beans into flat disks that are not overly dense and offer a moist interior, accented by a plethora of seasonings.
Sam gets excited to talk about koshari. The national dish of Egypt originated there in the mid-19th century. A carb-heavy combination of rice, macaroni and lentils, topped with a fragrant tomato sauce and garnish of chickpeas and crispy fried onions, this vegetarian dish (vegan, if cooked with a plant-based oil as it is at Pharaohs Palace) is a culinary mashup, incorporating Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern culinary components. A bit of advice: Be sure that the server brings you the ramekin filled with a vinaigrette. This tangy combination of vinegar, lemon, garlic and finely ground cumin is key to this filling, working man’s dish. Pour it on. Stir it up. Scoop up and open wide.
My eyes widened to the side serving of pyramid-shaped mounds of rice that accompanied meat entrees like the Pharaohs Palace Mix Grill and the Alexandria Sausage. The rice was studded with little bits of broken vermicelli, golden brown from first having been cooked in oil. The fragrance of this fluffy short-grain rice is divine. The reason, which you’ll notice upon tasting, is the subtle addition of cardamom, ginger and cinnamon.
The Pharaohs Palace Mix Grill is a not-so-subtle assembly of meat. It was a filling portion of kofta (think: meatballs shaped as a kebab, then grilled), as well as kebabs (choose between chicken and beef), lamb chops and sauteed strips of onion and red and green peppers in tomato sauce. The restaurant is proud of its Alexandria Sausage: thin sausages the size of tater tots, made entirely from beef without any filler and hand-stuffed, also served with sauteed onions, peppers and … broccoli? The meats were suitably cooked, but neither entree transported me to Egypt.
The restaurant excels in its vegetarian offerings, from tightly wrapped, tender grape leaves stuffed with rice to the Egyptian Salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and green peppers dressed with a nice ratio of acid (vinegar, lemon) to oil.
The Macaroni Béchamel and samboska are not the healthiest items on the menu, but they are worth the indulgence. The former transported me to Italy, as it holds baked ziti, studded with ground beef, smothered in creamy bechamel and a top layer of melted mozzarella. The latter, at least the way they are made here, are perhaps best described as Egyptian-style egg rolls.
Samboska are savory pockets of fried phyllo dough. Here, you can get them filled with cheese (my order), vegetables, chicken or seafood. The distinction at Pharaohs Palace: They are not the typical small triangles, rather a trio of behemoth rolls.
Indulge, also, in dessert. Like the Macaroni Béchamel, the kanafeh is made to order, so put in the request early for this dessert molded from crunchy threads of angel hair pasta known as kadaïf, and filled with sweet ricotta-like cheese, flavored by a lemony syrup and garnished with crushed pistachios. The baklava pleases, too: for its thinness, its toned-down sugar and amped-up nuts. Finish royally by ordering dessert with Moroccan mint tea presented in a silver set.
There were moments that dining at Pharaohs Palace was not royal. Apart from disappearing servers and noticeable lulls between courses, cocktails were mainly wet messes. Then again, mixed drinks aren’t exactly a specialty of Egypt. Although Sam told me that they give you Champagne for free on your birthday.
Add that, along with an affordably priced menu, plus belly dancing and other live entertainment — and hookah, if you’re into it (Ventilation is good; the smells don’t hinder the enjoyment of the food) — and you’ve reason enough to walk into this quirky Egyptian palace in Alpharetta.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Service: Unhurried and novice, but with the casual charm of a family-run business
Setting: Full-service restaurant and hookah with Ancient Egyptian decor in a nondescript, tiny strip mall
Best dishes: Hummus. Moussaka. Zaalouk. Cheese Samboska. Macaroni Béchamel. Alexandria Sausage. Koshari. Baklava. Kanafeh.
Vegetarian selections: Hummus. Baba Ganoush. Moussaka. Zaalouk. Grape Leaves. Falafel. Macaroni Béchamel. Cairo Cauliflower. Cheese or vegetable Samboska. Royal Soup. Numerous salads. Koshari. Mounof Mixed Vegetables.
Alcohol: Full bar. Recommended cocktails: Pharaoh's Whiskey Cocktail and an off-menu vodka drink made with tamarind syrup. Moroccan tea service features mint tea.
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Children: Not recommended
Parking: Free parking lot
MARTA station: None
Reservations: Accepted, but not necessary
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Above average due to music
Address, phone: 11890 Douglas Road, Alpharetta. 678-205-9119
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