1255 E. Main Street, El Cajon
131 Jamacha Road, El Cajon
“Russ?” “Yup.” “It’s me. I’m in El Cajon.” I’m calling on my first-ever cell phone. Hate the end of freedom. But now I need this thing.
“That Dubai restaurant you were crazy about? It’s closed! I need another place. Hongry. Hour to the last bus!”
Russ is my man in El Cajon. Like me, he’s gotten himself hooked on Middle Eastern food, the kebabs, the rice, the Arabian tea, the, well, the ceremony. And El Cajon has turned into Middle East Central, foodwise.
“Sorry. You’re on your own, man,” Russ says. “I don’t know what’s down that end.”
So I head west, back along East Main. Find Italian, Greek, hot dog, but no Middle Eastern. Getting dark. Just about to give up when I notice a country and western–looking place. A big new banner says: “Palms Family Restaurant.”
Hmm... The palm trees on the sign look Arabian. Worth a look-see. I walk up onto the veranda and in through the swing door. Whoa. Bi-ig room. Lots of round tables. First two are filled with middle-aged Middle Eastern men playing cards. I cross a doormat that says “Midnight Cafe,” pass six-foot-high photos of 1920s downtown Los Angeles and Marilyn with her skirt blowing up. Must be hangovers from the last incarnation. A flat-screen shows Ishtar TV — Middle Eastern music videos.
“You know we serve only Arabic food here, Middle Eastern?” says this well-dressed guy, struggling with his English, as I start to sit down at one of the way-big tables.
“No problem,” I say, and wait for him to bring a menu. But “we don’t have any yet,” he says. “So what can I get?” I ask.
“Kebab, chicken tikka, shawarma, like gyro,” he says, pointing to a rotating stack of skewered, sliced meat. “Escalope, sometimes sandwiches.”
As he struggles to make himself understood, I get a little thrill inside. Think I’ve stumbled across the real thing here. Not a Middle Eastern showcase for westerners, but a meeting place for the locals — Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians.
Naturally, I can’t decide, so they decide for me. Plate of two beef shish kebab and shawarma on yellow rice ($11, and I could’ve had four kebabs for the same price). I ask for tea, Arab-style — that is, in a glass cup, no milk, with a sugar-shaker to up-end into it.
More people are coming in. Men, that is. Can’t tell if they’re speaking Arabic or Aramaic or what. The first nice surprise is an appetizer dish that comes with the meal: a little gold-rimmed plate, divided into four, with hummus (chickpea-and-lemon-juice mash), baba ghanoush (mashed roasted eggplant dish with tahini — sesame seed paste — olive oil, lemon, and garlic), tabouleh (a micro-chopped parsley, bulgur wheat, mint, and tomato mini-salad — dee-lish), and the most luscious of all, eggplant salad, which is more like sautéed eggplant strips with red bell peppers. Two hot pita breads steam away in a basket, ready to be ripped and gripped around the appetizers.
Wow. Now the well-dressed waiter brings over a beautiful — and big — square china plate loaded with the two kebabs and a sea of shawarma strips loaded on a pile of yellow rice. Sour, pickled, curried cauliflower, tomato, onions, parsley, and slices of lemon sit around the rim. Wisest thing I do is twist the lemon slices over the rice and meat, ’cause, oh man. What flavors. The shawarma is the best, but those kebabs really fill out the vacant spaces.
“They have excellent appetizers here, like the eggplant and tabouleh,” says Jimmy, who’s Iraqi Chaldean, from Baghdad. He’s at the next table with his friend Sam, also Chaldean. “Everything’s fresh. And have you seen the kitchen? Clean.”
“They’re the best in El Cajon,” says Sam. And Sam ought to know. He and his son have been running a restaurant themselves, nearer downtown El Cajon, for ten years. “These people only opened a month ago,” he says. “That’s why they don’t have a menu yet.”
Whew. Now I’m outside. Full moon gleams down from above the “Palms” sign. I think back to poor Dubai. Then I remember the place next to it. Baklava place. Sultan Baklava. And, hey, still 20 minutes till that last 815 bus…dessert!
Two minutes later, I’m inside this little palace of baklavas, and this guy Saban is showing me around his display of golden treats. Noodle flour with cream pistachios, donut dough, honey, and rosewater, traditional Turkish with green pistachio…all $1.50–$2 each.
I end up trying one of his own inventions, “country-style,” with chocolate and pistachios. Not drippingly sweet, which is good. And that flaky phyllo-dough pastry…oh, man. Little chunk of pink Turkish Delight on the side. “I used to make these for foreign diplomats in Ankara, the capital of Turkey,” he says. “But I am Kurdish. Life is not always easy for Kurds there.” We talk until I suddenly check the time. Oh, Lord. I get out just in time to see the night’s last 815 bus rumble by.
Dammit. Only one way out. Guess this is what cell phones are for.
The Place: Palms Family Restaurant, 1255 E. Main Street (in Main Street Village), El Cajon
Type of Food: Middle Eastern
Prices: (Prices approximate, as menu not yet fixed.) Shawarma sandwich, $6; kebab sandwich, $6; appetizer plate (including tabouleh, hummus, baba ghanoush, olives), $5; four-kebab entrée with rice, veggies, $11; shawarma with same sides, $11
Hours: 5:00–11:00 p.m., daily
The Place: Sultan Baklava, 131 Jamacha Road, El Cajon, 619-440-1901
Type of Food: Middle Eastern desserts
Prices: Most baklavas from $1.50–$2
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 815, 816
Nearest Bus Stops: Jamacha at E. Main