Egyptian art adorns the café walls, and Egyptian jokes adorn the
4644 College Avenue , San Diego
When you hump it south from San Diego State along College Avenue, heading for El Cajon Boulevard, the first sign of civilization is this li’l ol’ 1940s salmon-colored stucco house.
It sits on the corner of Adams and College, its wooden deck buried in purple morning glory and dotted with blue umbrellas and curly wrought-iron purple railings. The Egyptian Tea Room.
I climb up the steps to the deck. Big guy named John is putting up the umbrellas. This is late morning. Hot. Intense sun. They’re just opening, but already a student is looking for a hookup for his laptop on the veranda.
At first glance, inside’s like a regular deli, with the counter at one end, a few tables, and a settee or two. But then you start to notice other things. Some walls are washed cream and painted to look like ancient stones. Some are blue in the counter area, red in the lounge room off to the left.
Owner Harry Saval was inspired by the cafés of Cairo to open something similar in San Diego.
The wall decorations are, well, Egyptian. Ankh crosses, scenes from the lives of the pharaohs. Hookahs with red-and-blue stained-glass water holders sit waiting for action. There’s a hookah menu. And a neon-lit “Specials” sign for Hookah Happy Hour (half-priced 3:00–7:00 p.m., Monday–Friday, so you’ll get an hour for maybe $8).
The menu is fairly typical sandwich-and-salad stuff. The College Burger, gyros sandwich (with beef and lamb), and BLT all go for $6.25. A Caesar salad’s $4.95. The most expensive salad, the blackened salmon Caesar, goes for $8.25.
The appetizers definitely look Egyptian. Hummus and pita bread with pesto and chipotle is $4.95. Dolmas (okay, that’s Greek for grape leaves stuffed with rice, spices, and herbs) are $3.50, and ful madamas, a seasoned fava-bean dish, goes for $3.95. The Pharaoh’s Pheast combines all three for $8.50.
These are good prices. At least one breakfast item shows a Middle-Eastern influence: the Aswan Dam omelet (“It’s a dam good omelet!”) has three eggs and a gyro filling of lamb and beef, red onions, tomato, and chunks of feta cheese. Plus rosemary potatoes and toast, $5.95.
I go for that. Give my order to Harry Seval, the owner. Says he created this place in 2004.
Why Egyptian — and why a tea house?
Morning glory vines cover the railing of the front patio.
“Long story,” he says. “When I was a student at SDSU, I got the travel bug. I worked on a kibbutz in Israel, then went to Egypt. I loved the cafés of Cairo, with their hubble-bubbles — shishas, nargeelas they call them. They’re conducive to conversation. The way people lean back, settle in, play backgammon, read the paper, and talk, talk, talk. Cafés are so social over there.”
Five minutes later, his helper John comes over to the tall table where I’m sitting. He’s carrying my omelet. Wow, it’s something else. Looks packed.
“When I first went over,” Harry says, “I went to the Red Sea. Stayed for weeks in a Bedouin village called Dabab. I paid $10 a day for lodging and board, three meals. We’d have endless cups of tea, snorkel, fish. It was beautiful.”
He says he’s tried to recreate that atmosphere here. “But I had to be careful,” he says. “Because this was 2004, and 9/11 was still an open wound. Feelings were running high. Anything that had a Middle-East flavor, there could be bad feelings. So I stressed the Egyptian theme. Pyramids, pharaohs, Nefertiti, the romance of Egypt.”
He seems to have been ahead of the curve on the hookah craze. “It’s strictly tobacco mixed with molasses and fruit pulp,” he says. “No tar, no chemicals. It’s hard to get addicted. Safer than drinking. The Turks brought it to Europe 400 years ago, along with the idea of tea and cafés. Yes, the Turks! Loved good conversation, intellectual exchange.”
The Aswan Dam omelet features three eggs, gyro filling, red onions, tomato, and chunks of feta cheese.
Harry encourages the same, with open mikes on Friday nights, poetry readings on first Wednesdays, belly dancing on second Saturdays.
“I see this as a conversation café,” he says, “a refuge for artistic souls.”
And starving students? Well, yes. He reckons three could come in and get teas, a hookah, and something from the appetizers and not spend more than $20 combined.
“I don’t have kushari, the most common street food from Cairo,” he admits. “That’s lentils, chickpeas, rice, macaroni. The nearest thing I offer is ful madamas ($3.95), the seasoned fava beans. That is totally Egyptian.”
It’s also affordable. “I try to keep this a funky, Bohemian little café,” he says. “One great thing is we have so many regular customers who make this their hangout and come play backgammon, chess…”
Meanwhile, I’m chomping through my omelet, with its lamb-beef combo and the feta cheese. The potatoes have a sweet tang — could they be sweet potatoes?
Harry shakes his head. “No sweet potatoes.”
I guess it’s the herb combo. Whatever, no complaints.
Half an hour later, I head up to El Cajon Boulevard and the #15 bus. Still savoring the feta and lamb. Man, I’d love to have tried some of the drinks, like the Bedouin tea ($1.50) or the Turkish coffee ($3). But I didn’t think of it till it was too late.
Also wish I’d tried the ful. Seems the Egyptians have been growing and cooking and eating fava beans for 5000 years. Ramses III hisself was probably chowing down on ful 4000 years ago, the morning he fought off the Sea People.
I’d like to raise my spoon to the old pharaoh. And to his ambassador, Harry Seval.
Stop the press! Due to a family emergency, Harry has had to sell the tea room. Naser Amira has taken the reins. Most menu items are the same, but breakfast is being temporarily eliminated. In two months, Naser says he’ll change the restaurant’s name to The Prince. It will remain a hookah lounge–eatery.
The Place: The Egyptian Tea Room, 4644 College Avenue (at Adams), 619-265-7287
Prices: College Burger, $6.25; gyros sandwich (with beef and lamb), $6.25; BLT, $6.25; Caesar salad, $4.95; blackened salmon Caesar salad, $8.25
Hours: Midday–1:00 a.m., seven days
Buses: 1, 15, 856, 936
Nearest Bus Stops: El Cajon Boulevard and College Avenue