6990 University Avenue (at 70th Street), 1, San Diego
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.)
The finely minced beef filling on the pizza crust is moistened with sour cooked-down fresh tomatoes and flecked with Seven Spices. (The full-crust tart doesn’t include tomato.) Mario prefers the pizza version because “We make it fresh, by the order.” But I found this Levantine concoction on pizza dough as unsettling as a bagel topped with foie gras, or a brioche with pastrami and sauerkraut. Instead, I wished I’d ordered “Fatosh” (as it’s spelled here), a refreshing salad of cukes, tomatoes, onions, red and green bell peppers, and pita croutons soaked in Mediterranean vinaigrette, the Middle Eastern version of Italian panzanella, and perhaps the age-old ancestor of Caesar salad.
By the time we finished our appetizers, we were ready for desserts. But not yet — we’d ordered entrées, too, Mark having gone to the counter with our list of choices and specifications. “I’m not sure he registered it when I ordered the lamb kebab rare,” Mark said. Well, Mario sort of did: the larger chunks had a pink flush left at the center, which by Middle Eastern standards is ultra-rare. The smaller pieces were done-to-death, of course. Good herbs, but desert-on-a-plate.
This and all other entrées came with a pool of pleasant hummus, pita triangles, a heap of flawless rice pilaf, and another heap of fresh salad dotted with feta cheese, sparsely dressed.
Trout with a touch of lemon-garlic sauce was grilled just right — crisp-skinned, tender. We also ordered grilled shrimp, but it never arrived. Out of shrimp that night? Unlike kosher dietary rules, Islamic rules allow shellfish, so that wasn’t it. Maybe we were just ordering too much, and Mario decided we shouldn’t face that many dishes? Intelligent can sometimes mean “I know better” stubborn. A Mystic riddle.
When Mario delivered the lamb shank, he said, winking, “I made it myself, just for you.” The shank had been long and slowly braised in its own juices with onions and seasonings, the meat flavorful but shreddy, perhaps because every molecule of surface fat had been removed. Tasty, but none of us ate much — I guess we love the fat of the lamb.
Nearly all entrées are also available served atop a green salad; several are available as pita-wrap sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and pickles, or mixed into pasta (the most expensive dishes, those). The menu also includes shawarma of chicken, beef, gyros, or combos thereof (no lamb), while additional kebab choices include chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, and kuftas (sausage-shaped meatballs) of ground chicken, beef, or lamb with complex spice mixes like those in the kibbeh.
Mario particularly recommends the chicken-breast shawarma. “If you try our chicken shawarma, you won’t believe it,” he said. “We have the best chicken shawarma in the whole country. Most restaurants use frozen chicken; ours is fresh. We’re using baby chicken breast, from a small, young chicken, hand-slaughtered halal-style, not machine-slaughtered. It’s seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg. Exquisite!” He’s also especially fond of the pastas, particularly those with Alfredo sauce (marinara is the alternate sauce), which can be topped with chicken or beef shawarma, gyros, seafoods, or combos thereof. Alfredo with Seven-Spices–seasoned grilled shrimp sounds like something I’d really want to eat.
And, yes, we also got a $5 Mystic pizza, the mozzarella seasoned with Middle Eastern za’atar spices (oregano and thyme) and topped with gyro meat and mushrooms (plus $1.50 extra for artichoke hearts). It was regular, pretty-bad American pizza, about on a par with the Julia Roberts comedy, with the usual underdone, glutinous crust. It’s available as a sit-down entrée only when you order more dishes — solo, it’s to-go. (That keeps the local teens from colonizing all the tables.)
The pastry case holds savory mini-pies on the left and desserts on the right. That evening, baklava variations were the only sweet choices, in pistachio, walnut, and almond versions. The pistachio is almost totally nuts, all crunchy, only a bit sweet between top and bottom layers of filo. The walnut was my friends’ least favorite, but I really warmed up to the leftovers over the next two days of breakfasts: the low-key filling consists of ground walnuts, slightly sweetened and held together by butter and flour or fine crumbs, studded with larger nut pieces, and with just a little syrup. The almond baklava, my friends’ overwhelming favorite, is more of the standard splashy rendition, dripping syrup — indulgent but not disgustingly sweet. At the restaurant, I didn’t get even a taste — my friends managed to cut it into four pieces for our fivesome and gobbled them all up to the last filo flake. (No blame. I had mine later.)
I ordered a Turkish coffee to go with dessert. “Are you sure? VERY strong Arab coffee!” said Mario. I was sure. “All right, it will take me five or seven minutes.” Time came and went. Mark returned to the counter. “Five, six more minutes,” said Mario. We finished desserts and grew restive, ready to leave. Mario had just brewed a big pot of sweet tea for the tableful of men that included the bearded guy in the caftan. He poured me a splash into a paper cup. It was super-hot. “We need to get home,” I told him. “Can I exchange my Turkish coffee for a piece of almond baklava?” (The coffee is $3, the baklava $1 apiece.) He was happy to make the trade. He did not want to make Turkish coffee for me or maybe anyone else. (Well, it is sort of a pain.) He gave me not just the single piece I asked for, nor the three-pieces priced equivalent to the coffee I’d paid for, but four pieces. “An extra, because you had to wait so long,” he said, with a smile as sweet as baklava.
High-Class Bargain Meals
Vivande, the beautiful upscale Italian restaurant at Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad, is offering tasting dinners starting at $44 for three courses, rising by $10 per additional course up to $74 for the six-course tasting special.
In Encinitas, Savory has a new Thursday–Sunday wine menu with $30-and-under bottles.
And Cavaillon may be a bit out of the way, but see our “happy hour” listings for deep discounts on dinners. That’s a place that, if you’ve got a mouth, you want to eat there.
HOURS: Daily, 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $2–$4; salads and sandwiches, $5–$12; pastas and entrées, $9–$12; pizza, $5 (two toppings); desserts, $1–$4.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Middle Eastern appetizers, salads, wraps, entrées, and pastries (plus American pizza), with halal meats, fine ingredients (Prime-grade beef, never-frozen young chicken, etc.). No alcohol.
PICK HITS: Falafel, kibbeh, spinach pie, “Baba Ganuge,” grilled trout, lamb shank, dessert pastries. Chef’s picks: chicken shawarma, pasta Alfredo with topping of choice. Other good guesses: Fatoosh Mediterranean salad (spelled “Fatosh” here), shrimp kabob or grilled shrimp, kufta kabobs.
NEED TO KNOW: No star-rating applicable at this price level, but best dishes are excellent, well worth the trip. No reservations, very busy Friday and Saturday nights. Order and pay at the counter, serve-yourself paper plates, silverware, and water; hot food brought to table. Pizzas to-go only, unless you order additional food. Bright, plain, noisy room. Eight vegan choices (appetizers, salads, wraps).