A sampler of Lebanese delicacies
Google Maps directed me to get off the 15 north at El Cajon Boulevard and drive 20 blocks to Alforon, the “amazing” Lebanese place my friend Patricia had raved about. It’s at 59th Street, near the Campus Plaza Shopping Center. Rather than going with my impulse to skip the long trek down the Boulevard on this lovely April evening, twilight descending over the city, I decided to take another route. I was reminded of a passage from Jim Miller’s novel, Drift. Set in San Diego circa 2000, the main character, Joe, is cruising down El Cajon Boulevard to College Billiards on the corner of 53rd, listening to the song “My Favorite Things”:
Tawook — so good were the garlic paste and chicken.
“Coltrane left the structure of the melody and flew into some dissonant notes as Joe crossed Fairmount by the Labor Council, which made him think of Woody Guthrie. Etna Pizza, Amara, Saigon Restaurant, Hoover High, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, ‘This land was made for you and me.’ There were some kids fighting on the street outside Near East Foods. Joe smelled a rich sweet odor wafting out of a Chinese bakery, rolled on past Nam Bac Sam Nhugh Duoc, Chinese Herbs, Kon Luong, the Asian Business Center, Pho Hoa, 7-Eleven, and Euclid Street. ‘This land is your land,’ 97 Cent Discount Store, ‘This land is my land,’ Tony’s Tire Shop, ‘This land was made for you and me.’”
Miller’s passage perfectly captures the street, the poetry of the storefronts. It was hard not to heed Guthrie’s words as I bopped my head in time to the Beck tune on my own stereo.
Indeed, my trip through City Heights to Rolando was a reminder of the plethora of immigrant influences in San Diego. The postcard-pretty image of our city can hide its dense richness, whereas a drive down one of our central arteries reveals Technicolor complexity. To get to my Lebanese food, I passed through neighborhoods where Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean cuisines sit cheek by jowl with Mexican and Jamaican places. We forget that San Diego is a crossroads, similar to its sister to the north, Los Angeles. I hoped the meal I was fetching for my family, and our friend Keith, who was visiting from Northern California, would not disappoint.
Thank-you notes from Lebanese diners hang on the wall.
Located in a small strip mall, next to Aladdin’s Hookah and Coffee Bar, Alforon’s unassuming exterior belies its warm, Mediterranean-inflected interior, burnt-umber walls, dark wood furniture, and the tile floor of its dining room. When I arrived, a table of chic Lebanese women was just clearing out. In a corner, a college-age couple nuzzled over wraps and sodas. I felt a pang that I was getting takeout rather than sitting down and eating our dishes as they emerged from a huge, wood-burning oven behind the front counter in the open kitchen. After catching a glimpse of a paper-wrapped Zaatar Mana’eesh ($2.50) — Lebanese oven-baked flatbread — and rolled Chicken Tawook ($5.75) — a wrap slathered with garlic paste and marinated chicken — I was intrigued to see what awaited once I got everything home. All the dishes at Alforon are affordably priced, so my family and I had gone a bit crazy with our order, aiming to experience as much as we could of what the restaurant has to offer. The menu is so extensive, our sampling left us with plenty of interesting items to try another time.
My drive back to Golden Hill was more prosaic, down College to the 94. I wanted to blast home, so we could dive into the aromas emanating from the bags on my front seat. Once in the house and unpacked, I couldn’t believe the array of dishes I’d netted.
First off was a very serviceable Fattoush — a salad of tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, onions, and bread shards in a lemony dressing ($4.95 for a small; $9.95 for 2–3 people). While I prefer a Fattoush with a bit more bread, the dressing stood out. Alforon imports its olive oil from “the homeland,” and they use it liberally in all their dishes. The flavors of the salad dressing were echoed in a fava-bean dish, Foul Moudammas ($5.95), a warm bit of heaven. Use your leftover Zaatar Mana’eesh as a sop. These two items whetted our appetites for the main courses.
Which were, naturally, the flatbreads. According to Alforon’s website, they make the dough for their breads throughout the day. A host of ingredients sit atop, or rolled up inside, the thin, almost cracker-like bread. I’d ordered some of Alforon’s signature dishes, along with a couple of basics. Zaatar Mana’eesh flatbread, in its classic form of wild thyme, sumac, and sesame (without the yogurt cheese, labni, or other vegetables), gives a sense of the expertise of Alforon’s chefs — it’s simple and crisp, yet pungent with herbs and toasted sesame.
The Zaatar flatbread, though, is merely the gateway. Also tasty and impressive were: Lahm Bajeen ($2.95), a mixture of ground beef, tomatoes, and herbs and spices, which we ordered spicy; Vegetarian ($5.75), a surprising symphony of onions, tomatoes, two or three kinds of olives, sumac, oregano, and spices, all mixed in olive oil; and my friend Keith’s favorite, Portobello Mushrooms ($7.75), a pile of stewed, spiced mushrooms beneath a sprinkling of feta cheese.
Along with the flatbreads, we ordered the aforementioned Chicken Tawook. This we devoured, so good was the garlic paste and perfectly tender chicken. We also had a Falafel Wrap ($4.95), which was standard but enhanced by the inclusion of house-made pickles.
The rose syrup drips off the crust of the Aaysh Essaraya and creates a delicious pool.
Rounding out our feast was Alforon’s special dessert, Aaysh Essaraya ($3.95). This confection consists of pistachio-encrusted, rose-syrup-infused phyllo suspended on a yogurt-based pudding. The syrup drips off the crust and creates a delicious pool to scrape your spoon through as you scoop up the last bits of goo.
“This land was made for you and me.” How extraordinary that San Diegans are privy to such food. And we are clearly not alone in our gratitude — witness the many handwritten thank-you notes from Lebanese folks taped to a wall in the dining room, right underneath vintage pictures of Beirut. ■
Alforon: 5965 El Cajon Blvd, Rolando, 619-269-9904; alforon.com
Vibe: Warm, aromatic respite off busy El Cajon Boulevard
Fare: Homemade Lebanese flatbreads and kaack, hummus, baba ghannouj, falafel wraps, tabouli, fattoush salads
Seating: 6 tables, 4 seats at the counter
Must Try: Zaatar flatbread; Chicken Tawook; Lham Bajeen; Portobello Mushrooms; Foul Moudammas; Aaysh Essaraya