Ask anyone who knows me really well to list my quirks, and one thing you’re likely to hear is that the merest fragment of a notion can rattle around inside my skull for weeks and then seemingly out of nowhere, it can explode into full-fledged obsession. When I read about Ishtar Market & Restaurant over a month ago in Boise Weekly, I remember thinking to myself that I needed to check the place out. I then promptly forgot about it for several weeks, or so I thought. A few days ago, all at once I remembered the place existed and decided I needed to go there, and soon. I dug up the BW review, then decided to go looking around the web to see what other people were saying. The BW review had only one comment, and that one didn’t really talk about the food. Urbanspoon likewise had one comment, and that one was more descriptive and promising. Yelp had a few more comments, and they were all positive as well. This didn’t necessarily prove anything, and I’ve certainly had my share of differing opinions with the mass consensus of Boise area diners, especially when it comes to ethnic food. Then I came across Ishtar’s Facebook page, and was shocked to see that not a single person had “liked” them! For some reason, that provided the encouragement I needed to head out and see if I would be a member of the majority this time.
Ishtar has a fairly limited menu, but that didn’t make the decision of what to order any less difficult. There are essentially four different main items (shawarma, beef shish kebab, chicken kebab, and falafel) available in nine different configurations and combinations. I must have spent half an hour looking at the menu before deciding on the shawarma sandwich. It is, after all, a world-famous street food and I do have a thing for street food. I called to make sure that they do take-out orders, but didn’t place my order at the moment because I intended to look around the market while my food was prepared.
Luckily, I looked up details of the location before heading out, otherwise I would have been checking out the street and driven right past them. Ishtar is actually located in the strip mall adjoining the Reel Theater on Overland Road in Boise, just East of Orchard Street. I hadn’t actually visited that strip in a few years, but I think the location may have previously been a Mexican eatery. I knew I was in for something good the second I walked into the market from the amazing smells that immediately assaulted my senses. Forcing myself to focus, I approached the counter and ordered the sandwich, only to be told that the shawarma was tapped out for the day. Apparently they use the big roasting spit at Ishtar, and it was simply too late in the day to start a new one just because someone wanted a sandwich. Thinking to myself that I always, ALWAYS should have a back-up order in mind because this kind of thing happens to me fairly often, I took another look at the menu. I was completely lost and simply couldn’t decide what to get from the remaining options, so in the end I chose the combo meal that has everything BUT shawarma, the Ishtar Platter. True, it was significantly more expensive than my original choice, but part of the reason for that had been to make a safe investment, and now that I was actually there I couldn’t imagine that the food wouldn’t be good.
While my order was prepared, I looked around the market. I simply adore ethnic and specialty markets, and Ishtar is no exception. Everywhere there were interesting candies, canned goods, frozen goods, bottled drinks, and other various sundries. I felt like I had barely scratched the surface when suddenly the proprietor appeared with my order already bagged up. Remembering that the menu said I would have my choice of three sides with the platter, I mentioned them and was told that not all of the choices were available and that I was given the three that were. Once again, probably because I showed up so late that it wasn’t worth making another batch. I was really craving hummus though, and was assured that there was indeed some in my bag so I left happy. It was difficult not to pick and nibble on the way home because some of the amazing smells from the market had apparently found their way into my bag and were flooding the inside of my car, but I somehow restrained myself until I made it home.
|Yup, that’s a salad all right…|
The first thing out of the bag was a small container, inside of which was a pre-dressed salad. This little side dish was enough to convince me that I was in for a treat. It was perfectly seasoned, and even the cheese wasn’t terribly strong.
|Hummus. Don’t ask me where they found that adorable, tiny little olive…|
|Very good bread. Unfortunately I have no idea what it’s called.|
The hummus was next, a fairly small container, but given how much food there was overall that wasn’t a bad thing. This was also very nice, not too dense or heavily spiced. It made a nice spread for the equally wonderful bread that Ishtar makes in-house. Both the bread and the hummus were some of the better examples I’ve found around Boise, and I could easily see myself returning just to buy bread the same way i sometimes go to Orient Market to get their baguettes. Now, it was time to open the big package…
|From top down: falafel, beef shish kebab, and chicken kebab.|
Not having any idea how to attack this, I started from the top. The falafel had great flavor and texture, but as everything else would, it suffered a bit from the long car trip, and unfortunately it’s not really something that you can re-heat. The beef shish kebab was the biggest surprise of the evening for sure. It looked like steak but was actually more like a grilled meatloaf or gyro meat. I have to admit I was put off a little at first because it was so unexpected, but it was still good and I was back on track quickly enough. The chicken kebab was the real star of the meal, intensely seasoned with grilled veggies and resting on a bed of saffron rice that was in turn resting on a piece of flatbread, all of which was delicious. My housemate tried the hummus and bread and adored them as much (if not more) than I did, and she enjoyed the falafel as well. She didn’t care much for the chicken, but only because she only really likes pure white and cleanly-trimmed breast meat. As for myself, I was perfectly satisfied, though I couldn’t stop wishing that I had eaten at the restaurant. This style of food wasn’t meant for a long car trip on a chilly night.
I intended to do my write-up the same night or maybe the next day at the latest, but it bugged me that there was only one main course that I had yet to try, and that’s why I found myself back at Ishtar a couple of days later ordering the shawarma sandwich that I hadn’t been able to get the first time. The proprietor remembered me and what I had ordered on my previous visit, and asked how everything had been. I told him I had been a little surprised by the beef shish kebab but that everything had been really good. As long as I was there, I asked about the flatbread that had been included with the meal and asked if he sold it on its own. He does, and he slipped a fresh one (the size of which would be considered at least a medium pizza in most places) into a bag for me, and if that bread had been any hotter it would have been uncomfortable to hold. For good measure, I decided to add a couple of pieces of baklava to my order. Before I left, he told me that I should consider eating at the restaurant sometime, that it was a completely different experience. I assured him that I had that very thought the last time, and that I would certainly return and do just that.
History repeated itself. Another chilly night, another long car ride surrounded by tantalizing aromas that drove me crazy, and another meal that was a little cold and dry by the time I was finally able to eat it. But once again, everything was very tasty and I’m completely certain would have been even more so had I eaten it while it was hot and fresh.
|A strong contender for best flatbread in Boise.|
Miss Golden Rule and I tore into the flatbread straight away. I had been a little concerned that I had nothing to dip it in or to spread on it, but it didn’t matter because nothing more was needed. I cursed myself for waiting until I got home to eat it just so I good get a picture of it intact for the blog, because if it was this good now, when it was hot it must have been the kind of good that makes your eyes roll back in your head uncontrollably. I will definitely be making special trips for this bread in the future.
|Chicken shawarma sandwich|
Next I pulled out my shawarma sandwich, a mixture of well-seasoned chicken, vegetables and if I’m not mistaken a little hummus stuffed into that oddly-shaped bread from my previous meal. Once again, delicious, but once again the 45 minutes it had spent sitting in the car hadn’t done it any good, and once again I was kicking myself for not just eating it while it was still fresh. No question in my mind, next time I order food from Ishtar, I’m staying there to eat it.
I’d never had baklava with pistachios before, and the second I saw it I knew I had to try it. I bought a piece for the housemate too, because she is not only a baklava fan but a dessert fan in general. She took one bite of this, an unpleasant look immediately crossing her face, and said she didn’t know if she liked it. A few seconds later, she decided for sure and abandoned the rest of it. Me? I adored it. The flaky dough, the honey, the chopped pistachios, and a rather large amount of cinnamon all combined to make this one of the most interesting and addictive desserts I’ve had in quite some time. I finished my piece in three bites and then took down the rest of the other piece in two. I’m not a dessert kind of guy most of the time, but I strongly suspect that any time that baklava is on hand when I’m there, I’ll be leaving with at least one piece.
I think I’ve rambled enough for now. If I haven’t convinced you to try the place yet, I think it’s a lost cause. But if I have convinced you, follow the map below. Scrumptious stuff awaits.
Final Grade: B+
Everything is fresh and cooked to order. There is NO sandwich deal better than their $5 offerings on the aforementioned huge bread. Don't be put off by the decor in the restaurant. This place is awesome.