Fried eggplant, green and yellow zucchini, plenty of spuds, and only $5.49.
4614 Mission Boulevard, San Diego
The frontage on Mission Boulevard
OMG. When Hadil lands the chicken shawarma salad in front of Cindy, Cindy gasps.
And so does everybody else in the little room. It’s huge. A boat-shaped plate, laden with fries, chicken shawarma, tahini sauce, and, underneath, tons of greens, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and I don’t know what-all else. I see it costs $12.99. A moment later she hands Mike, the guy with Cindy, a big three-cornered bowl of grilled Chicken Caesar ($9.99). There’s a ton in there, plus a really big side boat of Caesar dressing.
“That’s what you get here,” says Ryan. “A lot. We learned about this place from next door. West Coast Cuts. They said we had to come. Said you get more than you bargained for.”
Cindy laughs at the size of her chicken shawarma salad
Ryan says he and his buddy are from Philadelphia, PA, so they know good cheese steak. That’s what he’s eating. “Trust me. This is good. Meat’s fine-shaved, cheese is right. Rolls are Amoroso for sure.”
We’re in this tiny, six-table eatery in PB. Mission Boulevard. Nine at night. Discovered it between West Coast Cuts, the barber shop, and Bicycle Discovery.
“Vanoos Grillette,” its awning said. Then, “Falafel, Shawarma, “Cheese Steak, Gyro, Salad, Wraps.”
It was open, and looked cheap enough for me. That was all I cared. I was broke. As I came in, to a purple and light-blue-walled deli-type place, this guy came up to the counter.
Ryan and his cheese steak
“Have you got mine ready yet? Because I’ve been waiting, like, ten minutes, and I’m in a hurry.”
“Sorry, sir,” says the woman behind the counter. “But we make everything by hand here. It takes time.”
She points to the sign “Vanoos Grillette, the home of homemade food.”
“If you want to take your money back and cancel the order, that’s okay. Otherwise, maybe ten more minutes.”
“Fine,” she says, and goes to the register. “Sal! Halt that order!”
She hands the guy the money. “That’s the thing,” she says to the rest of us waiting here. “We are not fast food. We make everything in the store, Israeli-style.”
Huh. She’s Hadil. Says Sal, the big guy cooking in the kitchen, is her husband, and a kid yakking away with him is their young daughter.
“That’s Vanoos, short for Vanessa,” she says. “It means ‘Butterfly.’ We named this place after her.”
Hadil says they are from Nazareth. They speak Hebrew, Arabic, and English. “Vanoos speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and English, too, and she is four years old,” says Sal. “We are Greek Orthodox Christians. Nazareth is the town where Jesus grew up.”
He says he brings olive oil from Israel to use here. “And I bring spices for our za’atar as well.”
Za’atar? Never heard of it. But I see it in the menu’s list of appetizers. “Seasoned blend of dried herbs mixed with olive oil and labne (a kind of thicker, richer, creamier yogurt), served on flat pita bread, $5.99.”
Most of the items on the menu are salads, sandwiches, subs. And most cost around nine bucks. The New Jersey Sloppy Joe ($8.99) has roast beef, turkey, or ham and Swiss, plus coleslaw and Russian dressing on rye. Wraps, subs salads, hot sandwiches...they all look pretty much like your average sandwich shop on the page.
I ask for their vegetable salad because, one, I’ve been eating too much gunge lately; and, two, it looks like it could be a bit naughty, as salads go. It has fried eggplant, green and yellow zucchini, potatoes “finely chopped with garlic lemon dressing, topped with tahini sauce.” Tahini’s the sesame-seed paste. Love it. Also love that this costs only $5.49 for the eight-ounce version ($8.99 for the 16-ounce). I order the eight-ounce.
The cheese steak
“So, how different is this food from what you eat back in Nazareth?” I ask Sal.
“Not at all. It is the same. Back there, they may have different stalls with specialties, like hummus or baba ghanouj, but we make it the same here as we did there. For our shawarma [gyro], we rub in mixed spices we bring from Israel. And see these stuffed grape leaves? Hadil stuffs them with ground beef or vegetables, rice, and fresh lemon. And guess where the leaves come from?”
I give up. “From a can?”
“From my four grape vines here in San Diego! I cut the leaves from them and bring them down to Hadil on the days when she’s mixing the stuffing ingredients. So the leaves will be fresh. That is the difference we are trying to make. See that roast beef? We roast it. See the hummus? We make it. This is our tradition from Israel. Make everything. Why do I import our olive oil from Israel? People around Nazareth only harvest the olives every second year, so the trees have time to recover and give full flavor to the olives. Not like the annual ones in California.”
Mike's enormous chicken Caesar
All this time I have been standing by for my li’l five-dollar meal. But it’s worth the wait. It is luscious with that eggplant and spuds and lotsa tahini squirted all over. The zucchini and eggplant and potatoes and peppers have all been fried, for sure, but they have plenty of lettuce to counter it and keep it legit as a salad.
If I had more time, I’d go for their grape leaves (six for $5.99) or the za-atar, one of the most ancient tapas among Palestinians and Israelis, Sal says. I mean, we’re talking history here. People have been living around Nazareth for unbelievable eons of time. Maybe as much as 10,000 years. And eating salads like za-atar. Jesus probably ate za-atar, right in Nazareth. His home town.
And, talk about work ethic. Sal has his master’s degree in electrical engineering. That’s his day job. But every night he’s here. Meanwhile, Hadil has worked here seven days a week, ten hours every single day for the past three years.
These guys know what it takes to make an American dream happen.
Prices: Pizza on flat pita, $3.99; stuffed grape leaves, $5.99; za’atar (dried herbs, labne, olive oil on pita bread, $5.99; chicken shawarma salad, $12.99; grilled Chicken Caesar, $9.99; New Jersey Sloppy Joe, $8.99; vegetable salad, $5.49 (8 oz), $8.99 (16 oz); tabouli salad (with bulgur), $5.49, $8.99; lamb shawarma,$8.99; cheese steak hot sandwich, $8.99
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m. daily
Buses: 8, 9, 27
Nearest bus stop: Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue