George and Myriam
5965 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
"‘Just don’t use the ‘P’ word,” said my friend Joe. “Remember, they’re flatbreads, not pizzas, and you’ll get on fine.”
I still don’t get it. I mean, dough, you roll it out, you put stuff on top, you bake it, you eat it. How come different people call the result by different names?
Because I’d told Joe about passing this place named Alforon last week, coming up from where African Spice used to be, at 54th. Left hat there. Had to go back anyway.
“You have got to go try it,” he said. “They were named number 25 on Yelp’s list of the 100 top eateries in the United States!”
Wow. That sounds pretty awesome. So, I’m walking west along ECB, around eight at night. Empty part of the boulevard. Then I see this one place lit up, and this guy manning a valet service stand.
“What are you valeting for?” I ask.
He nods over his shoulder.
The restaurant has a bright frontage shining out into the night. Inside has that “Those Were the Days, My Friend” vibe. You can see people through the window, laughing, chowing down, ripping breads with their hands, talking across tables.
“What’s it like?” I ask the guy.
“Really good food,” he says. “They bring me some out sometimes. But it’s expensive.”
Still, can’t resist sticking my head in.
“Come in! Come here! Now!”
It’s this little lady behind the counter. Yes, she’s talking to me.
“How hungry are you?” she asks.
“Well, kinda hungry. But it depends on how much stuff goes for.”
“Don’t worry about that. You like spicy?”
“Okay. I’ve got the perfect dish for you. Take a seat.”
And, presto, it’s it and that’s that. I sit down like I’m told, blown away by the spunk and gusto of this gal. Like you’d never know this scene wasn’t in the middle of some Italian opera.
But everyone seems cool here, jolly, and talking across the room to this bearded fellow in a chef’s tunic, and to my gal. Turns out he’s George Salameh, and Samia is his wife. This is their place. Had it since 2008, think he says. They’re from Lebanon. He used to be an airline pilot for companies like Gulf Air, till the ’08 downturn.
“That’s when I decided to switch gears completely,” he says. “I’ve always loved cooking. Dad was a respected French-Lebanese food scholar. I’ve been learning from him for the past 30 years.”
Then he has to go back and get my mystery dish organized. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It won’t bust your bank.”
The awards wall
As I wait, I can’t help noticing the shelf on the left wall is groaning with framed recognitions and awards, and above them, hanging on the terra cotta wall, black-and-white pictures of old Beirut.
Takes about ten minutes before my meal comes out. A…pie. Or, flatbread?
“Flatbread, please!” says George. “We do not use the ‘P’ word here.”
He says their thing is “oven-baked cuisine.”
“Flatbreads are about the most ancient foods anywhere,” he says. “I built our own oven. Just like they have had in Beirut since forever. It gets really hot like a tandoor.”
He looks over. “See, now it’s cooling down, but it’s still 700 degrees in there.”
I think what he’s saying is that the flatbread is baked before they put the flavorings on top. Big difference from the p pie. Whatever, mine is a big, uneven flatbread with finger dents where they have pulled and punched the dough into shape, with a reddy brown topping and a white Lebanese cheese spread on top around the center.
“It’s a soujouk flatbread,” George says. “Armenian. The spiced sausages are Armenian. They brought their cooking with them when they came to seek refuge in Beirut after the massacre.”
He’s talking like it was yesterday. But it was 100 years ago, 1915. I bite in. Spicy? You bet. Peppery, I’d say, and strong sausage flavor. The cheese lightens it a bit, and I get a delicious mint tea to palliate it.
The name “Alforon” means “the oven.” And George says it refers to communal ovens that villages still have in Lebanon. “People knead their own dough, then they take it to the village oven and have the baker bake it along with all their neighbors’. Much cheaper than creating their own ovens and fires.”
He says they have an old saying. “‘It’s better to take your dough and have the baker bake it into bread for you. Even if he eats half of it.’”
George brings a little pot of his garlic butter. Ooh. So delicious on the sausage sauce. You see the France-Beirut connection right there. Guys at the next table take delivery of a flatbread called “Chicken Tawook.” “It’s the most delicious flatbread you ever will have,” says one of them. “The garlic butter helps.” So does the hummus and tabouleh.
George says “Tawook” means “chicken” in Turkish. “So we’re really talking ‘Chicken chicken,’” he says.
But the one last thing everyone here says I’ve got to have, is aaysh essaraya.
“It’s Turkish for “bread of the palace,” says George. And he says it’s fit for a sultan. So I order one. Myriam, a statuesque server, brings the green pistachio crumble-top square. That sits on thin pound cake soaked in rosewater for a few hours, all on a kind of yogurt flavored with citrus and orange blossom.
Oh, man. That was spectacular. I get out of there paying $6.95 for the soujouk,
Aysh esserava dessert
$1.95 for the tea, and $3.95 for the dessert. Say, 14 bucks. A deal, ’specially as I’m carrying half the flatbread home. Don’t know what the valet parking guy was on about this being expensive. But I guess it’s working: in the next weeks, they’re expanding into the space next door. But they won’t be expanding their menu to include, well, those P-things. They’re fine doing their own Lebanese thing.
The Place: Alforon, 5965 El Cajon Boulevard, 619-269-9904
Prices: Hummus, $5.45; lahmbajeen thin flatbread with ground beef, tomato, onion, $3.70; spinach and cheese, $6.95; chicken tawook $6.95; soujouk (Armenian ground beef), $6.95; falafel wrap, $5.95; aaysh esseraya dessert, $3.95
Hours: 10:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily (till 7:00 p.m. Sunday)
Buses: 1, 15
Nearest bus stops: El Cajon Boulevard at 60th Street