169 East Main Street, El Cajon
Tapas in El Cajon?
I wasn’t even thinking of the possibility as I tramped along East Main, heading west. It was well past 8:00 p.m. and I was hungry, so I stopped at this old two-story clapboard house that has somehow survived, right in the middle of downtown El Cajon’s redevelopment — I’ve always wondered about it. New England Saltbox...think that’s what they call the style — wooden clapboards, the lines of the building straight up and down, like in that famous painting American Gothic.
A plaque on the front wall reads, “Historic El Cajon Hall 1894.” Seems this was the town’s first social hall. Just think: people have been walking in and out of these doors for, like, 118 years? When this was built, El Cajon was a dusty, horse-snortin’ Wild West town, population 500.
It’s a restaurant now, and a smart one at that. Through the window, I see mustard-colored walls, chandeliers, arched stone doorways, and an intimate bar at the end. There’s a patio off to the side, too. Looks over the city center park, Prescott Promenade. A sign by the front door reads, “Mezzah. Mediterranean tapas and more.” Hmm…head in.
“‘Mezzah.’ It means ‘Tapas’ in Arabic,” a guy tells me when I walk through the door.
“Still open?” I ask.
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Well, the kitchen’s open another half hour. Bar, a little later.”
His name is Ammar. Iraqi Christian, not Chaldean. He and his brother Laith started this restaurant a year ago. “We are Iraqi, but our tapas are mainly Lebanese. Iraqis love big entrées. It’s the Lebanese who like to snack on different small tapas, to have a drink, and socialize.”
Ammar shows me to a table by the front window. Can’t help wondering how many mayors back in the horse-and-buggy days sat right here, ready for an evening’s fun.
He hands me the two-page menu. Part of one side lists the entrées, from $12 (kofta kabob, “seasoned ground beef grilled over open fire” — comes with pilaf rice and veggies) to $17 (twice-baked lamb shank) to $25 (Masgov Samak, grilled tilapia for two).
The rest of the menu is all about tapas. Mezzah, $6–$9.
They look interesting. There’s Samaka Hara, a spicy dip with grilled veggies mashed with walnuts and red chili peppers ($7). Or Arayes, marinated ground beef grilled inside pita bread ($7). Grilled quails (“grilled in a garlic pomegranate reduction”), $8. Or Boraq (Middle Eastern spiced-beef spring rolls). You can even get a chicken pesto pizza ($8).
Everything runs about a buck cheaper at lunchtime. Greek burger wraps are $6, lebnah is $5. Baba ghanouj goes for $6.
I’m a happy camper. Except I make a miscalculation. I’ve seen some of the “small plates” you get in upscale downtown bars at happy hour. You need a microscope. So — feeling flush tonight — I go a little crazy and decide to order three tapas: the Ghanouj Beiruti (Beirut-style eggplant), $7; a Sherhaat (“country-fried steak medallions cooked in tahini sauce”), $7; and a Fetoosh (“Lebanese salad topped with grilled pita bread flavored with pomegranate vinaigrette”), $7.
And when everything comes, oh, my giddy aunt. The Fetoosh is a whopping salad on a big plate. It looks a meal in itself. The roasted minced eggplant is a sea of creamy eggplant with golden chunks of grilled, chopped-up pita. And the Sherhaat — well, it ain’t quite medallions, more like slabs of thin-cut steak, with smears of tahini (sesame-seed paste) on top, and broccoli, carrots, and grilled peas in their pods all around.
Plus, there’s hot pita bread wrapped up in a cloth napkin to keep it warm.
Oh, and a glass cup of Iraqi-style tea ($2 with endless refills).
zOverkill! But so delish. Dang, I’d love to order a bottle of the Lebanese beer, Almaza ($6). Never heard of that before.
I know I’ll never finish all this, but I give it a shot. The things I like best are the pomegranate molasses squirted over the eggplant, in dark, sweet, tangy, lines; and the pomegranate vinaigrette on the Fetoosh, along with the crunchy little surprise of grilled pita-bread chunks.
Oh, wait — maybe the best thing is the tahini rubbed onto the Sherhaat steak slices. It’s delicious.
Turns out, Ammar’s older brother Laith went to the Brooklyn Culinary Institute in New York. He joined the U.S. Army after he graduated and spent tours in Iraq fighting and interpreting. By the time he got back, Ammar had a master’s in philosophy at UCSF and was working as a bank manager in San Francisco.
Then the two decided to take a gamble. Each left his career to make it happen.
I could chew the fat with Ammar all night long — he studied social-constructivist linguistics at UCSF — but I can tell these people are twitching to end their day.
I have to pack up half of everything I ordered. I tell Ammar I’m coming back with the lovely Carla. This’d be just her scene. I’m thinking Friday, sunset, when some band’s playing a concert in the park. Right here, you’d have a ringside seat.
And, we wouldn’t have to worry about hitting happy hour. I’m sure two of these tapas would fill the two of us.
“Come back and ask my brother to cook the quail,” Ammar says. “He’ll grill them men kol galba…with all his heart. He has the touch.”
The Place: Mezzah, 169 East Main Street, El Cajon, 619-966-9373
Prices: Lunch tapas include Greek burger wrap, $6; lebnah, $5; baba ghanouj, $6; dinner choices include Samaka Hara (spicy dip with grilled veggies, walnuts, chili peppers), $7; Arayes (marinated ground beef grilled inside pita bread), $7; grilled quails (“grilled in a garlic pomegranate reduction”), $8; chicken pesto pizza, $8; Ghanouj Beiruti (eggplant), $7; Sherhaat (steak with tahini), $7; Fetoosh (Lebanese salad), $7
Hours: 11:30 a.m.–around 9:00 p.m., Tuesday–Thursday; till midnight, Friday; 12:30 p.m.–2:00 a.m., Saturday; from 12:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday
Buses: 815, 816, 871, 872, 888, 894
Nearest bus stops: East Main and Avocado