There are certain things you expect from a restaurant in a university neighborhood. It's likely to be casual and fairly inexpensive.
After that the range is wide: There are the predictable fast-food chains with their equally predictable, unhealthy and, for my palate, unappetizing food. There are the beer and pizza places, usually with at least one good entry. And then there are the ethnic offerings, often small, family-run restaurants, first-generation efforts to climb the economic ladder in a new land while sharing the dining culture that was left behind.
The area around the University of Kentucky has all of these.
I dipped into the third category, sampling the offerings at King Tut's Mediterranean Grill, at South Limestone and Pine Street.
A disclaimer: Although King Tut's, as the name would suggest, bills itself as Egyptian, the menu is pretty much the standard Middle Eastern fare. That said, I love this type of food and, if this is the way it's done in Egypt, that's fine by me.
I was particularly glad to see fried kibbi on the menu, which sometimes is missing from the menu at other Middle Eastern restaurants. Kibbi (which is how it's spelled on this menu; I'm more familiar with kibbeh, but there are several variations) is a mixture of meat, bulgur wheat, minced onions and spices. The fried version is shaped like a very small football with some of the mixture, often with pine nuts included, pre-cooked, in a hollowed-out middle. So, when done well, you bite into the crispy, fried exterior to find a second take on the flavors inside in a different texture.
Although this kibbi is made with beef, not the traditional lamb, it is very good. At $1.95 apiece, I recommend giving it a try. You won't be disappointed.
Also good was the baba ganouje (again, a nontraditional spelling), a mixture of, in this case, baked eggplant with garlic, lemon and olive oil. I thought the baba itself was very good. The eggplant was creamy but not blended into uniformity. The smoky chunks gave me comfort that it didn't come out of a can. King Tut's serves it with a reddish, hot sesame sauce on top, which I considered a distraction. I'd happily order it again but would ask for the sauce on the side. King Tut's falafel, fried patties of ground chickpeas with spices and parsley, also are quite good.
Among main dishes, all were good, few outstanding. The kofta kabab — essentially an improvement on a hamburger with ground beef mixed with parsley, onion and spices that's cooked on a skewer — was tasty if perhaps a little overcooked. Same for the chicken and beef versions of shawarma, thin slices of meat that have been marinated and broiled.
The one vegetarian main dish we tried, mujadarah, an abundant serving of lentils and rice cooked together and topped with fried onions, was good, but it would be improved with some kind of fresh, crunch counterpoint in addition to the yogurt sauce that comes on the side, such as the excellent tabouleh.
King Tut's also offers an Indian menu but, oddly, relatively few of the things listed were available. Missing when we asked were all of the vegetable entrees, the meat samosas and any dish made with goat or lamb. Apparently this is common, making me wonder whether it might be time to update that menu.
The vegetarian samosas were tasty but much too oily. We also tried the chicken tikki masala (as it was spelled on the menu), which was a nice, spicy take on that standard.
King Tut's is an excellent value. A more-than-abundant lunch for three, with no drinks, was a little less than $30. In a building that's seen many restaurants come and go, it is a decidedly bare-bones setting, a place where takeout might be a better choice than eating in for dinner. That said, I visited King Tut's during UK's winter break. The atmosphere might be quite different when students and staff fill the tables.
Regardless of whether you eat in or out, give King Tut's Middle Eastern offerings a try. They're worth it.
King Tut's Mediterranean Grill
Address: 341 S. Limestone
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily
Phone: (859) 243-0768
Online: No website and a bare-bones Facebook page
Other: Street parking. Appetizers, $2-$5; salads, $4-8; sandwiches, $5; main dishes, $7-$8. Vegetarian options available. No alcohol served.