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Magic Moments

I take my last slurp.

"Turn the coffee cup upside down," Claudia says, "but with the open top toward you, or it'll pick up the fortunes of others."

She leans over the table.

"Good. Now turn the saucer and cup together."

I do.

She picks up my cup and studies the inside rim.

"I see two people, standing tall. They seem to be protected by a covering. That means you and your wife? Yes? See? An animal -- is that a dog? And, yes. Next to it a tall, well-rooted tree. They are protecting you. Ooh. Plenty of ooze coming from the grinds still. That means you will be very wealthy."

That perks me up. "Really?"

"Yes, wealthy...perhaps not in money, but in love and friendship."

"Uh, oh. Great."

And I do appreciate it. But for one tiny moment...

Claudia and Sami and I are sitting at a sidewalk table outside their café of three weeks here on Park, sipping Turkish coffee and nibbling on baklavas. It's been a nice night, and a big surprise. I thought I was coming to a Vietnamese-American place for three things I'd loved last time I was here: coconut milk soup with veggies, shrimp and pork spring rolls, and a Vietnamese café au lait. That was its name, too. Café Au Lait.

But the Vietnamese-American couple left.

I came waltzing up Park around dusk, looking for the blue canopy over the stuccoed gray frontage. And yes, there it was. But instead of seeing Café Au Lait I see Café Delight.

Well, whatever. I go to the menu stand outside the little door. "Beef kabob," it says, "$3.99." Aha. The Middle East. "Shawarma (shredded prime rib or chicken) in pita bread, $4.99," gyros for $4.49, falafel -- those dried, fried chickpeas the Middle East couldn't live without -- or stuffed grape leaves for $3.99, and lots of sandwiches, from turkey to roast beef, and subs, all around the $4--$5 mark.

They have homemade soups and salads. Spring Mix catches my eye, because it has feta cheese in it, and it's only $3.99, and you can add grilled chicken for a couple more bucks. And they've put a special up on a chalkboard: "Lamb shank with red curry sauce with potatoes over rice or kus-kus, $6.99." Guess they're talking about couscous.

Ho boy. Lamb'll do it every time for me. In I go, to the tiny inside. Notice a painting, kinda abstract, on the wall of a second tiny room. Picasso, I'd say. Except it looks original. Can't be the real...

'Course now I see those self-same Vietnamese spring rolls (shrimp, pork, veggies, and vermicelli wrapped in rice paper, $2.99 for two) that Kalvin and Leslie made for me last time I was here. Boy, so good. Filling, too.

I'm also seeing a bunch of Italian entrées listed on the wall. Man, they'd hit the spot. Lasagna with garlic bread's $4.69, spaghetti with meatballs is only $4.19. They even have pizza by the slice for $1.59.

And, Lord. It turns out their soup of the day is exactly what I had on my last visit. That dee-licious green coconut soup, with carrots and potatoes.

I order a cup of that ($1.99 -- bowl would've been $3.29), resist the spring rolls, and go for the lamb shank, with couscous. And a coffee, $1.99.

It's so cozy inside, with the black-and-white tile floor, dun-colored walls, the art, and Middle Eastern music. But no, the tables outside are it. I grab my coffee and head for the sidewalk just as the guy, Marvin, brings out my coconut soup. Oh yes. Even richer than I remember. Then Claudia brings out the lamb shank.

Marvin is Sami and Claudia's son. "I have always wanted to have a restaurant," Claudia says. "I've been cooking since I was 11. My very first meal was macaroni with meat-and-tomato sauce. I cooked it for my aunt in Baghdad."

Pretty soon Sami's telling me how he used to run one of Baghdad's famous restaurants, the Ishtar. "I'd cater for parties for the government when Saddam was vice president," he says. But the day the government hauled him in and told him to spy on his customers, he dropped everything and left. "It's so sad," says Claudia. "Before the war with Iran, Baghdad was a beautiful place to be."

"We've gone backwards 100 years," says Sami.

Claudia married Sami when she was 16. It was mostly arranged by cousins, but it became a love match. "When I first shook her hand," Sami says, "the blood raced to my heart and my head. I knew she was the only one." They were engaged within a week and had 600 guests at their wedding.

I'm listening and chomping at the same time. The lamb is fall-off-the-bone delicious, and the couscous red sauce is filling. The flavor's a little sharp, so I ask for some pita bread. That balances it out.

Then, what the hell? You don't luck into friendly situations like this every day, so I have a Turkish coffee (though they call it Greek, $1.99) and baklava (79 cents). The coffee comes in classy bulbous little blue-and-white porcelain cups.

So then Claudia reads my fortune in the coffee grounds.

I guess she's right about the wealth thing. Take tonight, for instance. Talking to this guy who's -- hey -- catered for Saddam and survived, and, of course, Claudia. Turns out she painted that "Picasso" inside and cooks and sings like an angel and can read your coffee too. I mean, can you buy moments like these?

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I take my last slurp.

"Turn the coffee cup upside down," Claudia says, "but with the open top toward you, or it'll pick up the fortunes of others."

She leans over the table.

"Good. Now turn the saucer and cup together."

I do.

She picks up my cup and studies the inside rim.

"I see two people, standing tall. They seem to be protected by a covering. That means you and your wife? Yes? See? An animal -- is that a dog? And, yes. Next to it a tall, well-rooted tree. They are protecting you. Ooh. Plenty of ooze coming from the grinds still. That means you will be very wealthy."

That perks me up. "Really?"

"Yes, wealthy...perhaps not in money, but in love and friendship."

"Uh, oh. Great."

And I do appreciate it. But for one tiny moment...

Claudia and Sami and I are sitting at a sidewalk table outside their café of three weeks here on Park, sipping Turkish coffee and nibbling on baklavas. It's been a nice night, and a big surprise. I thought I was coming to a Vietnamese-American place for three things I'd loved last time I was here: coconut milk soup with veggies, shrimp and pork spring rolls, and a Vietnamese café au lait. That was its name, too. Café Au Lait.

But the Vietnamese-American couple left.

I came waltzing up Park around dusk, looking for the blue canopy over the stuccoed gray frontage. And yes, there it was. But instead of seeing Café Au Lait I see Café Delight.

Well, whatever. I go to the menu stand outside the little door. "Beef kabob," it says, "$3.99." Aha. The Middle East. "Shawarma (shredded prime rib or chicken) in pita bread, $4.99," gyros for $4.49, falafel -- those dried, fried chickpeas the Middle East couldn't live without -- or stuffed grape leaves for $3.99, and lots of sandwiches, from turkey to roast beef, and subs, all around the $4--$5 mark.

They have homemade soups and salads. Spring Mix catches my eye, because it has feta cheese in it, and it's only $3.99, and you can add grilled chicken for a couple more bucks. And they've put a special up on a chalkboard: "Lamb shank with red curry sauce with potatoes over rice or kus-kus, $6.99." Guess they're talking about couscous.

Ho boy. Lamb'll do it every time for me. In I go, to the tiny inside. Notice a painting, kinda abstract, on the wall of a second tiny room. Picasso, I'd say. Except it looks original. Can't be the real...

'Course now I see those self-same Vietnamese spring rolls (shrimp, pork, veggies, and vermicelli wrapped in rice paper, $2.99 for two) that Kalvin and Leslie made for me last time I was here. Boy, so good. Filling, too.

I'm also seeing a bunch of Italian entrées listed on the wall. Man, they'd hit the spot. Lasagna with garlic bread's $4.69, spaghetti with meatballs is only $4.19. They even have pizza by the slice for $1.59.

And, Lord. It turns out their soup of the day is exactly what I had on my last visit. That dee-licious green coconut soup, with carrots and potatoes.

I order a cup of that ($1.99 -- bowl would've been $3.29), resist the spring rolls, and go for the lamb shank, with couscous. And a coffee, $1.99.

It's so cozy inside, with the black-and-white tile floor, dun-colored walls, the art, and Middle Eastern music. But no, the tables outside are it. I grab my coffee and head for the sidewalk just as the guy, Marvin, brings out my coconut soup. Oh yes. Even richer than I remember. Then Claudia brings out the lamb shank.

Marvin is Sami and Claudia's son. "I have always wanted to have a restaurant," Claudia says. "I've been cooking since I was 11. My very first meal was macaroni with meat-and-tomato sauce. I cooked it for my aunt in Baghdad."

Pretty soon Sami's telling me how he used to run one of Baghdad's famous restaurants, the Ishtar. "I'd cater for parties for the government when Saddam was vice president," he says. But the day the government hauled him in and told him to spy on his customers, he dropped everything and left. "It's so sad," says Claudia. "Before the war with Iran, Baghdad was a beautiful place to be."

"We've gone backwards 100 years," says Sami.

Claudia married Sami when she was 16. It was mostly arranged by cousins, but it became a love match. "When I first shook her hand," Sami says, "the blood raced to my heart and my head. I knew she was the only one." They were engaged within a week and had 600 guests at their wedding.

I'm listening and chomping at the same time. The lamb is fall-off-the-bone delicious, and the couscous red sauce is filling. The flavor's a little sharp, so I ask for some pita bread. That balances it out.

Then, what the hell? You don't luck into friendly situations like this every day, so I have a Turkish coffee (though they call it Greek, $1.99) and baklava (79 cents). The coffee comes in classy bulbous little blue-and-white porcelain cups.

So then Claudia reads my fortune in the coffee grounds.

I guess she's right about the wealth thing. Take tonight, for instance. Talking to this guy who's -- hey -- catered for Saddam and survived, and, of course, Claudia. Turns out she painted that "Picasso" inside and cooks and sings like an angel and can read your coffee too. I mean, can you buy moments like these?

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