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Greek fries come topped with roasted garlic and feta cheese at Xerxes Mediterranean Grill in Ashland. [Photo by Sarah Lemon]

Middle Eastern favorites at Xerxes Mediterranean Grill

The return of a favorite fast-casual eatery in Ashland should make fans of a certain Middle Eastern street food very happy, indeed.

Happy Falafel reopened last month on Siskiyou Boulevard after its departure several years ago from a tiny, shoebox space in the Ashland Shopping Center. New, expansive digs still near enough to Southern Oregon University should go far in reinstating Happy Falafel’s formerly strong following under the name Xerxes Mediterranean Grill.

When I frequented Happy Falafel five or more years ago, it was perhaps the only local spot that served lamb souvlaki to complement its gyros, typically made with a blend of beef and lamb. Lamb souvlaki, unfortunately, didn’t make the transition from owner Ben Pazzira’s original establishment to its reincarnation. But I did note a new tandoori chicken meal ($14.49), along with several salads, including chicken Caesar ($7.49) and a rendition of the classic Greek salad, dubbed the Xerxes ($7.95). A side salad of trendy quinoa augments the more traditional take on tabbouleh (each $3.49).

Long gone are options for small or large falafel and gyros. Each comes in a singular size, priced at $7.49. An order of Xerxes’ superb fresh-cut fries costs $2.95, but the portion is large enough to easily feed two people. An extra dollar buys Greek fries, topped with roasted garlic and feta cheese.

In the absence of lamb souvlaki, falafel was an easy choice. I couldn’t pass up the fries, knowing full well that I wouldn’t come close to finishing them. And after mulling whether I should tack an extra dollar onto some extraneous spuds, my yearning for nostalgia won out, and I changed my order from regular fries to Greek.

Because the banana milkshake ($4.50) is another essential flavor, I added that to my already considerable quantity of food. If only I’d had a lunch date, I would have indulged in the combo plate ($9.95) of hummus, baba ghanoush and tzatziki with warm pita to share.

My meal was ready in short order, arranged on a cafeteria-type tray. Hot sauces and ketchup stand at the ready, and I helped myself to a drizzle of Sriracha over the falafel.

Xerxes’ chickpea fritters are a nice size, about the diameter of a golf ball, so there’s plenty of crunchy, deep-fried exterior on each. I counted five inside my flatbread, garnished with tomato, cucumber and red onion, enriched with garlicky tzatziki. Romaine lettuce also numbers among the standard veggies, but I asked for my falafel without.

The flatbread itself wasn’t quite as soft and pillowy as I recalled. This one was flatter, more like a tortilla, and not as tender as the pita of my memories, which also seemed to hold the sandwiches’ heat a bit better.

My Greek fries, however, were exactly the same as before, their savory, salty notes intensified by the generous topping of garlic and cheese. The banana milkshake boasted large chunks of fresh fruit that I could spear on the end of the straw.

The iconic sweet treat baklava ($4) beckoned from the cooler. Pazzira had two types on hand, neither made in house, but very similar, he said, to the nut-filled pastry sold at his former location. I resisted the urge to take one home but likely won’t bypass it next time, preferably with a falafel-loving friend in tow.

Located at 1729 Siskiyou Blvd., Xerxes Mediterranean Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, until 5 p.m. Saturdays. Call 541-301-9866.

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