Phantom Diner

Sphinx of PA – The Phantom Diner, Central PA Magazine, March 2010

Written by The Phantom Diner | Feb 23, 2010 7:56 PM

Looking for something different, delicious and inexpensive to add to your dining-out routine?

You might want to consider Egyptian fare. It fits all three preceding descriptions and is available in Harrisburg, just minutes from downtown.

Sphinx of PA — yes, that’s its official name — is located in a smallish strip mall along Paxton Street, just west of the much larger Harrisburg Mall. It is not the sort of place that might grab your attention as you’re driving by.

It has the look from the street of a fast-food joint (and, in fact, if you like takeout it is pretty fast), but it offers tastes you’ll never experience at any drive-through spot.

The atmosphere inside suggests a split personality. It’s part restaurant, part diner, part convenience store. You order at the cash register, and your food arrives on trays. There’s a cooler filled with drinks, and a self-serve soda and iced tea area off to one side. Not that any of this is bad. Just do not expect fancy.

But there’s no real risk-taking involved here. I was surprised at how unexotic the food is. Plus, there’s a genuine effort to accommodate kids and/or the unadventurous by offering a few dishes familiar to all (more on that later).

Clearly, the attraction and the draw is flavorful Egyptian cuisine served by helpful, friendly folks in a relaxed, dressed-down setting that’s dressed up with colorfully painted walls.

Sometimes there’s even a large-screen TV playing a video on the history of the pyra­mids, in case you grow tired of looking at the beautiful and interesting warm-toned, hand-painted Egyptian scenes on most walls of the small eatery.

There are a few booths and a few tables and not much else. This is not a place to linger with cocktails (no liquor license, though I suppose you could BYOB). It’s not a romantic spot. It is simply a place with lots of good food, reasonably priced, with a special appeal to any who enjoy Middle Eastern cooking.

The menu has a twist. Most dishes can be ordered as a platter, salad or sandwich for prices varying by a couple of bucks. For example, a staple, shawerma chicken — small slices of chicken breast, marinated and cooked on a vertical grill — is $6 as a sandwich (excellent, by the way, in pita bread, though also offered as a sub), $7 as a salad and just $9 as a large entree that includes rice, chopped salad and nice fresh sautéed vegetables.

This dish is delicious any way you eat it. It comes with a light yogurt sauce that perfectly complements the grilled meat. And the chopped salad, made with parsley, tomato, onion and peppers, is great as a side or a centerpiece.

Shawerma meat is served the same way and costs the same. It’s hand-cut, seasoned beef served with that same savory light yogurt and fresh dill sauce. Unfortunately, Sphinx calls it “our Special Sauce,” but it will not remind you of the sauce you can get at that omnipresent national fast-food chain (there’s an outlet up the street).

Chicken shish-kebob and lamb shish-kebob also are offered in the same three fashions. The chicken is priced the same. The lamb is a little more, $8 for a sandwich, $9 for a salad, $11 for a platter.

But, as you’ve no doubt noticed, a couple can dine on generous platters of shawerma chicken and lamb shish-kebob, two large and filling entrees, for just $19.

Another option is the “Sphinx Platter,” $14, consisting of shawerma chicken and beef, chicken shish-kebob and kofta (a sort of Middle Eastern spicy meatloaf) served with rice and a salad.

And there’s good news for vegetarians. Sphinx offers three vegetarian dinners: falafel, fried split seasoned beans with tahini sauce (made from ground sesame seeds), $7; foul, which is slow-cooked fava beans mixed with tahini sauce, parsley and olive oil, $7; and koshary, a dish of lentils, rice, pasta, chick peas and fried onions, $6.

As mentioned, Sphinx also takes care of kids or those shy about Middle Eastern cuisine. Among menu offerings are penne pasta with ground beef or side orders of spaghetti with meat sauce or French fries.

Desserts are definitely worth trying, from baklava to kahk, the former familiar to most, the latter a powdered-sugar-coated sugar cookie. There’s also basbousa, a sweet cake soaked in syrup; zalabia, puffy fritter-like things soaked in syrup; and, for the unadventurous, fruit tarts. All desserts are $2.50.

You’ll also want to try Egyptian coffee. And when they ask if you want sugar, you do. Just don’t be in a hurry when you order it. It takes a while to boil, comes out in steaming-hot little pots and is, well, different than anything you’ve had at Starbucks. Think espresso on steroids. But it’s an experience, and I recommend it.

I liked this food (enough that I’ve already been back), and I liked the people serving it. I’m not crazy about the location or the setting, but sometimes good eats come from quirky surroundings.

So if you’re looking to get out of a dining rut and/or sick of standard-fare fast food, consider Sphinx: different, delicious, inexpensive.

SPHINX OF PA 2810 Paxton St., Harrisburg; no liquor license; takes reservations; offers takeout; parking on premises; takes major cards; 717-558-0702.

Published in Phantom Diner

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