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Unique spin: Mazaya Café serves Mediterranean cuisine with a Nepalese touch

Mazaya Café’s north side opens up onto a patio decorated with strings of lights and colored, inscribed fabric. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The area around UNM is Albuquerque’s center for the mix of Middle Eastern and Greek food often referred to as Mediterranean cuisine.

Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery, Olympia Café and Gyros Mediterranean have been operating across from the university long enough to qualify as institutions. Yanni’s Modern Mediterranean and Yasmine’s Café serve as bookends to the east and west, respectively.

Mazaya Café is the most recent arrival on the scene. Nepalese immigrants Rojesh Maharjan and Manoj Shrestha launched the place in the fall of 2016.

How two natives of Nepal ended up running a Mediterranean diner in Albuquerque is the stuff for another story. Suffice it to say that Maharjan has worked his way westward with stints at high-end restaurants in India, the Maldives and Dallas.

Mazaya is in the Bricklight District, a revitalized stretch of Harvard off Central that’s home to restaurants, apartments and retail.

Calling a stretch of road off Central a “district” might seem like a stretch, but the area, with its wide sidewalks, trees and, of course, brick, does feel like a world apart. In just a short time, it’s grown into an impressive food scene. Across from Mazaya sits Rude Boy Cookies and Cheba Hut Toasted Subs. Green Gene Vegan Café anchors the intersection with Central.

The pandemic’s shadow still looms large over the neighborhood. With UNM in a hybrid of in-person and online learning for the spring semester, a recent weekday dinner hour found empty parking spaces outnumbering cars on both sides of the street.

Not a soul inhabited Mazaya’s patio, a far cry from the pre-pandemic summer nights when crowds dined and listened to live music under strings of lights and dozens of colorful rectangles of inscribed fabric. Inside, the dining room was empty except for one couple.

Meats available at Mazaya Cafe include lamb kebabs, chicken shawarma and kefta, seasoned ground beef in kebab form. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The menu, divided into appetizers, kebabs, wraps and platters, is made up of fairly standard Middle Eastern/Greek fare, with the exception of momos, Nepalese dumplings filled with chicken, beef or vegetables and steamed ($9 99) or fried ($8.99). The only other nod to the owners’ Nepalese roots is a Himalayan tea that’s made with a caterpillar fungus said to provide numerous health benefits.

The house sampler ($25.99) offers a selection of appetizers, kebabs and shawarma.

Appetizers at Mazaya, clockwise from the bottom: fattoush salad, baba ghanoush and hummus with dolmas. (Richard S. Dargan/For the journal)

Starters include fattoush salad, a chopped salad that originated in Lebanon when farmers would fry leftover pita scraps in olive oil and toss them with whatever herbs and vegetables were on hand. Mazaya’s version had a lot of flavor thanks to an assortment of pickled vegetables.

Baba ghanoush, from the Arabic for “spoiled dad,” is a dip of Lebanese origin made from roasted, mashed eggplant, garlic and tahini. At Mazaya, it’s drizzled with olive oil and topped with pomegranate. The dip was silky and smoky and paired well with the pita chips.

The similarly well-executed hummus was topped with a decorative Zia symbol made from red pepper sauce.

Six discs of falafel, nutty and crisp, benefited greatly from the tart embrace of the tahini sauce.

The ever-present dolmas were a mixed bag. The lemony rice filling was spot on, but the grape leaves were so tough I was unable to bite through them without risking a dental emergency.

The meats, served in a separate container, were largely successful, starting with thick lamb kebabs cooked to the specified medium and served off the skewers for takeout. They were tender and flavorful, as was the chicken shawarma, tendrils of spit-roasted chicken golden-brown with seasoning. Kefta, the ground beef kebab, was amply seasoned but needed the tzatziki to relieve its dryness.

Mazaya Cafs gyros wrap, a lamb and beef blend served with tzatziki sauce, lettuce and pickles. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

The best thing I tried was the gyros wrap ($6.99) made with thin slices of seasoned, ground lamb and beef wrapped in a fresh, flaky pita. The meat was savory, with just the right balance of spices and enough lettuce, pickle strips and tzatziki to add texture and sour notes.

Desserts include Turkish Delight, gelatinous squares covered with powdered sugar, and baklava ($1.99). The latter, more nutty than sweet, presented an interesting and not-at-all unwelcome variation of the form.

Service was fine. I was given a 15-minute wait time after I ordered, but the food came out in 10 minutes. There are numerous vegan and gluten-free options, and the menu has a useful list of allergy alerts. The food was packaged for takeout in various plastic containers and boxes. The one small cup of tzatziki sauce included in the bag was insufficient for the meal. Be sure to ask for extra if you order takeout.

The UNM neighborhood has an embarrassment of riches in the realm of Mediterranean cuisine. With its unique spin on some familiar dishes, Mazaya Café contributes significantly to that scene.