Dining review: Briar Mart is funky, friendly, fresh

by MB PARTLOW mb.partlow@gazette.com - Updated: December 27, 2013 at 10:08 am • Published: December 27, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

When I first visited Briar Mart at its original location near Chapel Hills Mall, I prowled the grocery aisles. I discovered Israeli couscous and pomegranate molasses. The man behind the counter gave me samples of feta cheese from three different countries (the Greek was the best). I think I went back two more times before I even realized they served food.

Now the Briar Mart has moved to a new location on Academy Boulevard, where the old Mission Inn restaurant used to reside. There are funky round booths in the front where you can eat, although most folks get their meals to go. The atmosphere is still a little offbeat - half grocery store and half diner - but the food is impeccably fresh and reasonably priced. The service is friendly if a little reserved.

If nobody is behind the counter when you get there, ring the handy bell set out for that purpose. They might be in the back prepping 88 takeout lunches for the Air Force Academy (as they were during one of my visits), but they won't ignore you.

Most of the individual items, such as gyros, falafel and kabobs, can be served as a platter (with warm pita bread and either a Greek salad or saffron rice and grilled tomatoes), a value meal (with fries and a medium drink) or a plate (with a Greek salad). Once you get that concept down, you can order according to how hungry you are.

A simple gyros plate ($6.99) shows the attention to detail that makes this little place stand out. A big pile of brilliantly green, crunchy romaine lettuce is topped with sliced tomato and red onions. The dressing on the side is a mellow blend of vinegar and olive oil, accented with oregano. Some of the strips of gyro meat (a combination of beef and lamb) are browned and crunchy from the grill, while interior slices are soft and juicy. The tzatziki sauce has a great balance of tangy yogurt, cool cucumber and the sass of garlic. Warm, soft triangles of pita bread complete the meal.

The chicken kabob platter ($7.99) was a considerable portion of food. The grilled chicken is off the stick and arranged around the pile of saffron rice with grilled tomatoes and pita bread. While the best tomatoes aren't available at this time of year, grilling them turns them into something luscious. Most of the chicken was quite tender and moist, with one smaller piece ending up on the dry side. The saffron adds a subtle perfume and a bright yellow color to the rice.

The Mazeh platter ($7.99) is a great way to explore the menu. It comes with a Greek salad plus a big serving of nutty, smooth hummus. The flavors, including lemon, tahini (sesame seed paste) and garlic, merge without one dominating the others. Four crispy brown triangle of sambousic - delicious fried pastries filled with ground lamb, green onions and crunchy pine nuts - are on the plate. This platter also comes with several falafel (fried balls of ground chickpeas accented with garlic), parsley and cumin. While tasty, these were on the dry side. I don't think this would have been apparent in a sandwich, where they'd be surrounded by lettuce, tomato, onion and tzatziki sauce.

Other items I sampled included torshi ($1.99), or pickled vegetables. The carrot, cauliflower, onion, red pepper and turnip were bathed in a mild vinegar brine that made a nice contrast to the fried items. The dolma (stuffed grape leaves, $3.99) were acceptable. The rice inside was firm, not mushy, and flavored with fresh lemon. I know a lot of people love cold dolma, but I prefer them served warm. The babaghanouge ($2.99) was my favorite item. This roasted eggplant and olive oil dip was silky smooth, tangy and smoky. It was the item everyone kept dipping into for just one more taste.

You won't be disappointed if you leave room for dessert, or at least take it home for later. Imported from Chicago, the baklava and nutroll pastries (each $1.99) are two permutations of crispy, sweetened phyllo dough. The baklava, golden triangles that shatter as you bite into them, are filled with cinnamon-scented pistachios, walnuts and butter, topped with a honey syrup. The cigar-shaped nutrolls rely on almonds and walnuts as the foundation. They are sweet and delicious.

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Note: The restaurant also offers Halal shawarma. Shawarma was described to me as very similar to a pita, when I asked the owner. Halal means the preparation conforms to Islamic law, meaning the meat must come from a certified Halal supplier.

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Restaurant character: Briar Mart is part Middle Eastern grocery store, part restaurant. They do a booming takeout business of staples like gyros, falafel and kabobs.

Rating total: 3.25 out of 5 stars

Food: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ambiance: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Service: 3 out of 5 stars

Address: 6799 N. Academy Blvd., 80918

Contact: 528-8516, no website

Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Saturday

Entrees: $4.49-$9.99

Alcohol: No

Credit cards: Yes

Vegetarian options: Yes; Falafel value meal ($6.99), Babaghanouge plate ($6.99)

Wi-Fi: No

What's online

As of Dec. 15:

- 90 percent of 101 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon

- 4.5 out of 5 stars based on 17 reviews on Yelp

- Not on Facebook

- One violation was corrected during a December inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.

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