401 W. Main Street, El Cajon
And then the Great King came forth, and he did spake, saying, “Let There Be Law!”
Thirty-seven centuries later, I’m lookin’ him in the eye, raising my glass mug of chai, and saying, “Sir, you did good.”
And the greatest lawgiver of the ancient world, King Hammurabi, looks down and strokes his beard and uttereth, “Well, you look like you’ve eaten good.”
“Actually, I don’t know much about him,” says Zak, cutting into my fantasy. We’re sitting on the terrace of his eatery, looking up at the face of Hammurabi on the restaurant’s sign. “Except, he was tough. You stole, forget it. You’re gone. But he wrote the law, eye for an eye. Back then, that was an improvement. He was king of Babylon…part of Iraq today.”
It’s getting dark. About sevenish. Some guys at the next table are drinking chai tea and puffing at hookah pipes. Zak and I are yapping on about how our laws are based on the ideas Hammurabi chiseled into stone nearly 4000 years ago. Things like, you’re innocent till proven guilty. Turns out, our nation’s Capitol, and the Supreme Court too, have tribute portraits of Hammurabi etched into their walls. So U.S. law is based on Iraqi law. Who knew?
I mean, last time I looked, this place was Kozak’s, a ’50s-type coffee shop. But Zak has inherited this great terrace. When the weather’s kind, it’d be a terrific people-gazing place, or, as Zak’s been doing right now, a cool spot to watch sports on the outside television flatscreen.
Actually, I’ve been eating inside, even though it’s a little less sparkly. The long counter doesn’t have the sit-up stools anymore, but the blue booths and dark Formica “wood” tables look as if they’re Kozak vintage. Bet the long aquarium that divides part of the counter from the kitchen is too. What the heck, I decided to eat right near the counter, so Angela the server would be handy to explain some of these dishes.
“Enjoy the traditional flavor of our ancient food,” the menu says, right below a picture of Hammurabi.
Hmm…It’s not so cheap here. But at least this stuff is interesting. Like, something called “pacha.” “Stuffed honeycombs and intestine with rice, including lamb tongue and lamb shank ($14).” Whoa. Now there’s something I’d love to try. The honeycomb thing. Pity I don’t have 14 Washingtons. Anyway, Angela says that’s off today. “It takes a day to prepare,” she says.
So she suggests I go for a straight kabob. Beef, chicken, or lamb. Comes with tomatoes, parsley, onions, and two round flat breads baked with your order right in the kitchen. I see it’s $9.95. I cast my eyes around for something more modest. See something called a potato chop, six pieces of “baked and fried potato pie, stuffed with beef,” but it’s $11. They have marinated lamb-heart pieces on a skewer for $13, and borak, which is fried egg rolls wrapped with ground beef and parsley ($10), and tashreeb, a marinated lamb shank ($10), and, hey, a roasted-chicken plate for $7, or rice and stew (“freshly cooked rice with stew of your choice: potato, eggplant, okra, or white beans”) for $8.
Heck, that’s doable. Plus, I see that chai (traditional Iraqi-style tea) is free. For a moment I consider the kobba musilli, a crushed-wheat pie stuffed with beef, because Angela says that’s a very Chaldean dish. But it’s 12 buckeroos, so I order an eggplant stew and chai, and I’m honestly stunned at the amount that Abdu Arazakh the cook brings out. First up, Angela plunks down a large round Frisbee-shaped plate holding these two steaming, fresh rounds of flat bread. Next, a hefty bowl of stew. And last, a big plate of rice — looks like wheaty basmati rice — plus a pile of tomato slices and yellow pickled cauliflower and carrot chunks. The stew’s roiling in eggplant halves. It takes a while for me to realize I’m supposed to empty the stew over the top of the rice. But then the fun begins. It’s squelchy, full of eggplanty richness, and way filling. And best: no shortage of sauce to flavor the rice. Man, it’s delicious scooping up the soggy bits with the bread. I keep thinking this can’t be much different from the way the great king himself munched, back in the day.
So now, outside, I sneak in a $1.25 baklava and one more glass of hot chai. I shake some sugar into it, and what a combo. I drift off, imagining that land as it was before all today’s troubles. The Fertile Crescent. Land of Milk and Honey.
“We were farmers,” says Zak. “Near Mosul. We grew wheat, cantaloupes, melons. We escaped in 1994, before I turned 17. My father didn’t want me to be drafted into the army.”
He hasn’t been back. But he still remembers the fresh air, and the fields of wheat, and the snow-capped mountains beyond. ’Specially when they roast a whole side of lamb ($225) for a large party of Chaldeans right here, on the terrace.
Then a European soccer match starts on the TV. And I gotta go. I turn left up Main Street, heading for the trolley. But I’m still thinking about those side o’ lamb terrace parties. Carla’s got a birthday coming up. Maybe I should throw her a baa-BQ right here.
The Place: Hammurabi Family Restaurant, 401 West Main Street, El Cajon, 619-401-3200
Type of Food: Mediterranean/Chaldean
Prices: Beef, chicken, or lamb kebab (with tomatoes, parsley, onions, flat breads), $9.95; potato chop (baked, fried potato pie, stuffed with beef), $11; marinated lamb-heart pieces on skewer, $13; borak (fried egg rolls wrapped with ground beef), $10; tashreeb (marinated lamb shank), $10; roasted chicken, $7; rice and stew (potato, eggplant, okra, or white beans), $8; kobba musilli (crushed-wheat pie stuffed with beef), $12; pacha (stuffed honeycombs and intestine with rice, including lamb tongue and lamb shank), $14; hookah pipes, $9.99 Monday–Thursday, $13.99 Friday–Sunday
Hours: open 10:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 815, 816
Nearest Trolley Stop: Main at Douglas