4237 Alabama Street, University Heights
In our pre-kid life, my husband and I spent a lot of time crashing on our friends’ hardwood floor in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We would roam around the city all day and recover at night. One inevitability of these visits was a trip to the neighborhood falafel stand, just down the hill from our friends’ apartment. We’d order huge wraps slathered in garlicky tahini sauce, mounded with cabbage, pickles, and moist, flavorful falafel balls. The hot sauce accompanying these massive wraps made our eyes sting and sinuses drip, but — oh, my — was it delicious.
For years, I’ve searched San Diego for some replication of this kind of a stand, with its swift service, homemade food, and tongue-tingling flavors. I’m ashamed at how long it took me to discover Mama’s Bakery and Lebanese Deli, which was right under my nose for several years. Don’t let the “bakery” part of the name keep you from grabbing some amazing Middle Eastern fare from this modest green-and-red Craftsman bungalow on Alabama Street in North Park.
The other night, after Little League practice, my family and I didn’t want to go home to cook; instead, we headed up to Mama’s. We grabbed a wrought-iron table outside on the sidewalk, as the garden patio was full. From our vantage point, my husband and I could see folks going into the Live Wire and thought wistfully of the days when we would have grabbed a beer after dinner. But tonight we were here with our boy, so we kept the focus on the food. The line wasn’t too bad (sometimes there can be a wait; you can always call ahead for takeout), and we were soon treated to an embarrassment of riches.
I say “riches" because from the homemade hummus and pickle appetizer, through the wrap and plate, and to the buttery baklava, Mama’s gives you overflowing portions at reasonable prices. The evening was balmy, perfect for sitting outside. We started with the hummus (small $4.49, large $6.49). It’s nicely balanced between puréed chickpeas, tahini, and garlic, and comes with warm pita wedges and, if you’re lucky, pickles.
For dinner, I decided to stray from my usual fried-eggplant wrap and go for the more substantial Chicken & Beef Shawarma Plate ($8.99). It comes with basmati rice, hummus, salad, and pita, and is way too much food for one person to eat. I was disappointed with the pita, as I was hoping the plate would be accompanied by Mama’s incredible handmade flatbread. But the flavors of the marinated chicken and steak made up for missing out on the bread.
My starving husband ordered two huge wraps, one a falafel ($5.99), the other a chicken shawarma ($6.49). These come with the homemade flatbread, baked on a giant heated surface, called a sajj, which dominates Mama’s tiny kitchen. Each wrap’s flatbread is baked to order, so it emerges warm and toasty — a perfect complement to the fillings. The falafel balls are moist and infused heartily with cumin and garlic. There’s a liberal amount of tangy tahini sauce and a veritable salad of fresh romaine lettuce, parsley, tomatoes, and those incredible pickles. His other wrap contained generous chunks of lemony chicken breast, veggies, and the tahini of the falafel wrap. There was so much food we easily had enough for lunch the next day.
Mama’s is kid-friendly, which meant our son was happy with his cheese melt ($4.99), which he dipped into our hummus. He chose a cream soda from the restaurant’s selection of usual and unusual drinks (e.g., ginger beer from Australia, kefir from Lebanon, Cokes, and Sprites). For dessert, we made our way through a half-dozen pieces of fresh baklava.
On other stops at Mama’s, we’ve had the Manakeesh, a traditional Lebanese wrap that can be ordered several ways. The basic version has thyme and other spices, olive oil, and sesame seeds on flatbread ($3.49). But I’d go for the Ultimate ($6.49) with fried eggplant, which adds tomatoes, olives, mint, lebni (a tangy, Middle Eastern yogurt cheese), and silky eggplant sautéed in olive oil until soft. The eggplant dissolves in your mouth and melds with the creamy lebni.
My all-time favorite item at Mama’s is the Fried Eggplant Wrap ($5.99). It has that amazing bread, the incredible eggplant, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and baba ghanouj. The two forms of eggplant echo each other as they slide down your throat. Just make sure to get a lot of napkins to catch the drips. ■
Mama’s Bakery and Lebanese Deli
4237 Alabama Street, University Heights, 619-688-0717; mamasbakery.net
Fare: Middle Eastern/Lebanese
Vibe: laid-back, neighborhood falafel joint
Seating: some tables in the patio and out in front of the restaurant, all outdoors
Must Try: Fried Eggplant Wrap, shawarma plates, Ultimate Manakeesh