A long-time Columbus favorite, Nazareth Deli uses its old charm in a fresh space.
The owner of Nazareth Deli and Restaurant - who obviously has a larger-than-life personality - has placed a near life-size cutout of himself cracking up and waving a baseball bat near Nazareth's entryway.
This stands just past the "no tunic, no sandals, no service" sign and nearby another bat that's been enshrined.
When I later encountered the broadly smiling guy patrolling his aisles - yes, with a bat - I asked him if he was enjoying the just-begun baseball season.
"Everyday is baseball season in here," he chuckled, and then, nodding at his bat, "If you complain about my food."
Hey, I ain't complaining.
Nazareth, a much-beloved Middle Eastern eatery for two decades, moved to this site about four months ago. This new location, a former Chili's a few blocks east of Nazareth's old Columbus Square digs, is roomier than its previous spot, but besides a few hookahs, murals and jokey references to the owner and his bat-wielding proclivities, looks fairly generic. Clearly what attracts Nazareth's many regulars is that cutup, charismatic owner and good-quality Middle Eastern food.
Such as Nazareth's Shish Kebab ($10), which was a highlight. Two skewers loaded with tender lamb cubes interspersed with sliced onions and green peppers arrived nicely seasoned and grilled. Like most entrees, they were placed atop a mound of good house rice scented with cinnamon and mixed with vermicelli and sauteed onions.
While I liked the straightforward ground lamb, onion and parsley flavors of the Kafta Kabobs ($9 for six blunt, thumb-sized "sausages"), mine had tarried too long on the grill. In other words, I enjoyed their crusty sear but found them to be marginally dry.
Clearly a crowd favorite here (based on several rapidly disappearing platefuls at nearby tables) was Nazareth's "signature" Spicy Chicken ($9). It's a favorite of mine now, too. Marinated and grilled chicken chunks with thyme and allspice-y accents had been doused with the potent, harissa-on-steroids house hot sauce, resulting in what I'd call addictive Middle Eastern jerk chicken.
Nazareth's menu strategies make it easy to turn entrees into sandwiches (for about half the cost) or to mix and match main dishes with the place's salads and dips (for a worth-it extra $4). If going the sandwich route, make sure you pair it with Nazareth's fantastic hand-cut fries.
If upgrading your entree with sides, options include: fairly generous portions of either hummus (smooth and creamy) or baba ghannouj (rich, lemony but not very smoky); plus a big-sized salad like tabouli (fresh, above average) or the recommended Nazareth salad (refreshing and full of veggies).
I liked Nazareth, but did have some issues. Such as rice far exceeding the proteins in entrees, a nice but undersized and overpriced pickly garnish option (Special Maza Plate, $5.50), and the all-important caramelized onions going MIA in the otherwise-satisfying, cuminy Lentils and Rice ($2.25).
But if asked by that Louisville-slugging owner how my meals went, I'd just smile, gaze at his "attitude adjuster" and tell him I thought he was batting .1000.