478 W. Douglas Avenue, El Cajon
"Yoo-hoo! Hello?” I’m back behind the gas station here, next to the tire shop…in Mr. Sagmani’s place.
Yes, his eatery takes a bit of finding. But, for me, it came just in time. Was getting desperate. Hiking west up Main, El Cajon, around 9:00 in the morning. Had to get something before the trolley. Need energy today.
The sign says, “Shish Kabob, 99 cents.”
Well, well. Not breakfast, but a start, and what a deal. The place is in a little lost rack of shops on Douglas. All brick and wood shingle.
“Mediterranean cuisine,” says another sign. “Sagmani’s Restaurant.” I head in, past a guy at the entrance who’s fingering a circle of beads. Can’t tell if they’re Christian rosary or Muslim prayer beads.
“Welcome!” says a merry 40-something guy coming out from the kitchen. Red T-shirt, black apron. Good-looking. Cross between Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson. Turns out he’s Mr. Sagmani himself.
“Do you do breakfast?” I ask.
“Sure, well, Chaldean style. We do lentil soup and pita bread. That’s always on, and it’s a traditional breakfast in Iraq. Only $4. Would you like that?”
I’m the only one here, so far — looks like the place is just getting going. I sit down at one of the half-dozen tables. Green cloths under plastic protectors. It’s a fairly plain room: white walls, maroon skirting boards, gray carpet, black-and-chrome chairs, pinkish acoustic tile ceiling. Red-and-gold curtains knotted halfway down brighten things a bit, along with a kinda 3-D Last Supper frieze above the kitchen. And a picture of a saint on the wall next to the kitchen servery.
“Saint Charbel,” says Mr. Sagmani. “He is a Maronite Catholic saint. He was a hermit in Lebanon. I am Chaldean. Assyrian Catholic.”
Right beside the good saint, Sagmani has a wall menu listing appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrées, and cooked meat to go. Most of the appetizers are $5, with plates like falafel (deep-fried ground chickpeas), hummus tahini (the hummus is mashed chickpeas with lemon juice mixed in, the tahini is sesame-seed paste), and tabbouleh (bulgur wheat with chopped-up tomatoes, onions, parsley, and other flavorings). Sandwiches look like a deal with the beef or chicken kebabs in pita bread going for $3 and the shawerma, the Middle Eastern gyro, for $4. Entrées start at $7, for two beef or chicken shish kebabs with rice, pita, and salad. Or — but only to go — those 99-cent shish kebabs.
Sigh. Nothing sweet for breakfast? Mr. Sagmani says he’s from Nineveh, one of those biblical cities like Babylon, land of milk and honey and dates, right? But not recently. Mr. Sagmani — “Stefan, Steve, please,” he says — was a house-painting contractor in Baghdad, when things there started to go south for Christians. He’s lucky to be alive.
I ask for the lentil soup. And, hey, four clams ain’t bad for a breakfast. Steve brings the thick, mocha-colored soup in a white bowl and a bunch of pita breads wrapped in a green cloth to keep them hot, just like tortillas. Mmm…it’s, well, lentil, but thick, honest, filling.
A few people are trickling in now. Can’t help noticing a lot start off by chewing away on slices of raw onion. In fact, this guy Clive, also Chaldean, comes and sits at my table and does the same thing. “It is healthy,” he says. “Also good for sexual performance. But best to eat in the morning. They say, ‘In the mornings, eat onions; at noon, give them to your neighbor; at night, give them to your enemy.’ Because, bad breath, bad stomach, bad sleep.”
Two guys, Abbas and Idriss, sit down at the table across from me. I see Steve’s assistant taking out glasses of hot tea to them, so I ask for one, too. It costs me a dollar. Then Steve brings them two plates that look very breakfasty. “Mine is tishrib baghela bdéhan,” says Idriss, “scrambled eggs on fava beans with oregano. It’s $7.”
“And mine is called mahlama: eggs, veggies, ground beef, onion. Also $7,” says Abbas.
Dang. Guess you have to know what to ask for. I see they get a salad included with their breakfast: sliced cucumbers, onion, tomatoes, Italian parsley, and green olives. “This is better than breakfast in Baghdad,” says Abbas. “The olive oil is better here.”
Gotta go. Except I’m craving one of those 99-cent shish kebabs. The two beef or chicken shish kebab lunch is $7, but it does come with rice, pita bread, and salad. Hey, Carla and I can share it tonight. I order that.
“Come again,” says Steve, as he hands it to me. “And next time bring four friends.”
“Because we have this special for five people: four beef kebab, two chicken kebab, two breaded-chicken steak, two breaded-beef fried steak…and rice and salad and pita bread. Twenty-five dollars. Five dollars each, my friend.”
Wow. That is tempting. At that price, even I could play big spender and just about get away with it. ■
The Place: Sagmani’s Restaurant, 478 W. Douglas Avenue, El Cajon, 619-440-0077
Type of Food: Chaldean Iraqi
Prices: Falafel or hummus appetizer, $5; lentil soup breakfast, pita bread, $4; tishrib baghela bdéhan (scrambled eggs on fava beans, with salad), $7; mahlama (breakfast eggs, veggies, ground beef, onion), $7; beef kebab sandwich, $3; chicken tekka sandwich, $4; beef or chicken kebabs in pita bread, $3; shawerma (gyro), $4; two-shish kebab entrée with rice, pita bread, salad, $7; beef or chicken shish kebab to go, 99 cents; lunch specials, Monday and Tuesday, $6
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 815, 816, 872, 888, 894
Nearest Bus Stop: West Douglas Avenue at El Cajon Boulevard
Trolley: Orange, Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: El Cajon Transit Center, Marshall Avenue at West Palm (half-mile walk)