6990 University Avenue (at 70th Street), La Mesa
Word spread from foodblog to foodblog until it reached my friend Lynne, who reads loads of ’em. She emailed me: “This place sounds interesting.” The encomiums were for a newish Middle Eastern restaurant in La Mesa, and I followed an internet trail paved with raves until landing at the blogger I trust most: mmm-yoso, who had particularly glowing praise for the falafel made from scratch.
That meant “get serious.” I’ve tasted (and left over) vast amounts of awful falafel (small chick-pea patties). Nutritionally, they’re fabulous, but they can be as parched as the desert, too often made from the same packaged dry mixes you see on supermarket shelves — or, at best, with garbanzo flour. In my experience, the only good falafel proved highly perishable: A Lebanese-Jordanian restaurant in Hillcrest named Ranoush made the best ever, including a memorable stuffed version, but swiftly went out of business. The good die young.
So I hit Mystic Grill’s website. I liked the menu and loved the prices — mezze topping out at $4, entrées mainly under $10, and weirdly enough, a 14-inch pizza with two toppings for (gulp) $5. And presto, our flying carpets landed us there — a posse of Lynne and Mark, long, tall Scottish Sue, and slim Jennifer, with the long auburn hair and pale skin of an Aubrey Beardsley faerie. In its previous incarnation, Mystic was a pizzeria, obviously named after Julia Roberts’s early film comedy, bright, and white, with large, framed touristic Italian scenery paintings on the wall, flanking the inevitable large-screen muted TV, tuned to not sports, but a food channel!
Now a counter over a glassed-in pastry case (full of goodies savory and sweet) fronts an open kitchen. All the hard surfaces make sound reverberate. You order and simultaneously pay at the counter, where you also pick up paper plates, napkins, water, and silverware to bring to a naked table.
Everything about the place says “mom ’n’ pop startup,” but this is no amateur operation. The quietly cordial Jordanian counterman-chef, Mario Elkhairi, set my “brain-dar” beeping — giving me the sense of an ample, active intelligence at work. When I phoned to fact-check a few days after dinner, I learned that Elkhairi is a lifelong professional chef. After coming to America, he worked for ten years in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, cooking Tex-Mex and Cajun. He moved to San Diego five years ago, and I was hardly surprised to learn he’d been a cook at Ranoush, previous home of great falafel. Now he does double-duty at Mystic as front man and chef de cuisine to owner and head chef Kamal.
That midweek night, the eatery enjoyed a flow of neighborhood folk who appeared to be regulars. About half were whatever-hyphen-American (Anglo, Latin, Pacific Islander, et al.), plus a slow, steady stream of young dudes getting takeout five-buck pizzas. The other half were Middle Eastern, mainly in ordinary casual clothing, but partway through our dinner, a quartet of men of various raiment strode in, led by a tall, dark-skinned, black-bearded guy with one dead eye, wearing a full green caftan — who soon was laughing with Mario as he placed the order for his table.
We began with an assortment of mezze (spelled “Maza” on this menu). The falafel, six to a plate, justified the blog raves. They’re indeed made “from scratch,” starting with soaking dry garbanzo beans until soft, then puréeing them with seasonings before frying. They had crackling-crisp surfaces and moist, jade-colored, grainy-smooth centers imbued with the subtle flavors of puréed herbs and spices — garlic, parsley, onions, celery, cardamom. “Oh, wow!” Jennifer exclaimed. “It’s like a completely different dish from the usual dry ones.” The patties came with a ramekin of labneh, condensed yogurt so creamy that even a yogurt-hater could love it. Next night, I found that the sole leftover patty, gently nuked warm, regained all its fresh-made textural virtues. (They’re worth ordering to go.)
More seductive labneh, this time sprinkled with minced green herbs, came with the equally mind-altering kibbeh, another dish that the knights of the Mystic kitchen are rescuing from the evils it too often endures — or inflicts on eaters. A kibbeh consists of an oval about the size of a small avocado with a thin shell of soaked crushed bulgur wheat surrounding a filling of chopped meat (in this case, USDA Prime ground beef) studded with a few pine nuts and gently seasoned with a Middle Eastern spice mix called Seven Spices. These meat torpedoes are usually awful, with ample potential for greasiness, dryness, and sheer wearisome weightiness. But Mystic’s kibbeh provided an “aha!” moment, where I finally understood why Middle Easterners love these patties: done right, they have all the virtues of top-notch German schnitzel — but are better seasoned. You cr-r-runch through a crisp toasty crust into a mound of lean, moist meat, with periodic surprises of buttery pine nuts. Yeah, bring it on!
Lynne, especially, loved the “Baba Ganuge” (as this menu spells it), a smooth spread of roasted eggplant with tahini, lemon, and garlic, topped with a slick of olive oil flecked with dried hot red pepper and served with pita triangles for scooping.
Spinach pie was another of mmm-yoso’s recommendations, seconded in person by a rave from a regular solo customer who returned to the counter to buy a dessert after finishing her kibbeh and grilled-trout dinner. Approximately the size of a Cinnabon roll, the pies have a puffy enclosing crust and a tender tart-green filling seasoned with chopped sautéed onions, extra-virgin olive oil, and plenty of lemon juice. “Usually I don’t like spinach,” said Scottish Sue, “but this is really quite all right!”
Not every appetizer was equal to those first tastes. With both the meat pie and the cheese pie, you have a choice of an enclosed tart shell — a heavier shell than the spinach pie’s, Mario says — or a flat, open-face rendition, a thin layer that tops — alas — flabby all-American mainstream pizza crust, like those on the five-buck pizzas. On pizza crust, the oregano-sprinkled ordinary mozzarella cheese makes for a half-cocked pizza slice. Might as well go for the whole pizza and get toppings and marinara, too. (In the enclosed tart-crust version, which they make less often, you’d get more gooey cheese and sometimes additional cheeses besides mozzarella.)