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    Eat & Swig

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    Much like the arid regions of North Africa, the Preston Highway location of the Mediterranean restaurant Mirage is desolate: expanses of oppressively unshaded pavement and not much color besides that of a mechanic shop, Derby City Sport and Speed and a La Quinta Inn. The restaurant’s authentic cuisine and loyal base of customers have turned Mirage into an — dare we use the word oasis? — yep, into an oasis.

    The dining room has three booths and 14 tables. Orange walls and sheer red floral-stitched curtains veil the space in a refreshing coolness. At the rear of the restaurant is an open kitchen, with a counter and a wide steam table separating the guests from the cooks. The manager, Makrem Dridi, 40, also acts as host and greets guests with a smile. Mirage has been open under various owners for almost four years, but Dridi — or “Mak,” as everyone calls him — has been with the restaurant the whole time. Dridi sounds like a geographer when describing the menu. “We make a lot of food from North Africa,” he says. “Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco.” He learned to cook in restaurants in his native Tunisia before moving to New York in his mid-20s. “I picked up ideas from all of these work experiences while I was in New York,” he says. “I had to cook Greek, Italian, French.” How’d he end up in Louisville? “All of my friends from Tunisia lived here,” he says, “but also, I met a girl who was from here.”

    For Dridi and Algerian owner Afafsa Kamel, who’s in his mid-50s, cooking is a spontaneous art. One of the ideas that came along with new ownership was a rotating steam-table special. Four days each week, Mirage offers five to eight specials (chicken, beef, lamb and vegetarian dishes) that Kamel thinks of the night before — or even in the car on his drive to work.

    Dridi recommends gyros to new customers. “Everyone loves gyros,” he says. “Then they tell their neighbors and from there it’s all word-of-mouth.” The restaurant is often packed, many eating a huge sampler plate that includes kabobs, shawarma, falafel, rice, grilled vegetables and three salads. The new menu also includes fresh-squeezed juices and soups, such as lentil and Moroccan harira. A dessert case contains baklava, fruit tarts, sweet-cream bread and a fresh Lebanese pastry called katyef.

    “We have a lot of customers from the Air Force,” Dridi says. “They fly all over these countries, and they see that we have that food. This is where they want to eat when they come home.”

    Article written by Tyler Curth

    This article appears in the August issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here

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