What $6.45 buys, plus tea
3145 Rosecrans Street, Suite A, San Diego
Dagnabbit. The last bus of the night has left. At 10:08. Half an hour ago. Stuck! No way to get out of O.B. and back to the world.
I stand here at the shadowy #35 stop on Cable, across from the Joint. No excuses. I’ve done this before. Should have remembered. This time it’s after eating at OB’s Sushi Sushi, and yapping longer than I meant to. Sigh.
Hard-decision time. There’s just one way to make it back to Old Town and the trolley: leg it. Press the bricks. Shanks’s pony. Walk. So, here goes. Up Cable 13 blocks, climb Voltaire, left on that snaky Chatsworth, and, finally, three weeks later (feels like), plunge down Lytton. I turn onto Rosecrans. It’s been about an hour. By now we’re heading for midnight.
Upside? This was a great work-out. Sweating like a pig. Feels good.
Ten minutes later, I lip over a small hill and spot a pool of light. Just in front of Bookstar, the converted movie theater bookstore. And in that pool of light, four men at a table, drinking tea from glass mugs and playing chess. And talking. In Arabic? Something Middle Eastern.
Sign above them reads “Country Kabob.” Still open? Hmm... Could eat a horse again. And this place looks so inviting. Let’s see: last Green Line trolley heads out of Old Town at 12:53 a.m. Could just have time.
It says “Mediterranean & Greek.” I turn into the path to the patio. Gingerly. Don’t want to alarm the chess players, coming in from the dark.
Atiq took in a footsore midnight customer
“Still open?” I ask.
Gent nearest me doesn’t look up. He is holding on to a white pawn, thinking. Then he angle-slides it and bumps a black bishop off with it. “Check,” he says to his partner. “Check,” he says to me, pointing through the open door.
In the bright, light blue and buttery yellow-walled room, I head for the counter. Behind it, murals of, like, Grecian urns, painted with ancient Greek scenes. Guys chasing gals, Pans playing pipes, that sort of thing. But now I think I’m hearing Farsi, the Persian language. One gent gets up.
“What time do you close?” I ask.
“Eleven,” he says. “But do you want something? No problem.”
Because, yes. It’s midnight already. He puts a big plastic menu on the counter. Nice. Except the plates and specialties are all around $15. Salads, $12. But, wait: saganaki. The flaming-cheese dish I always want to order. It costs $7.45. Then I think: How much actual food? How long would it take to make? So, I head for sandwiches. Like, hot pita bread curled around meat or, say, falafel.
First, most obvious, the gyros ($6.45), the pressed lamb-and-beef combo on hot pita, with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions. Now I spot kobida. It’s the ground beef. That’ll be a quick chew. I ask the guy for #41, the kobida kebab ($6.45). Then, because Carla’s gonna need a big pacifier when I get back, even if I make that trolley, I add #37, the lamb kebab sandwich ($7.45).
I also ask the guy, Atiq, if I can have one of those teas everyone else is sipping. “Not a problem,” he says.
He goes to a stand with an urn and starts pouring into a glass cup.
Fieq the philosophy professor plays late-night chess with a fellow customer
I nod. He puts in two teaspoonsful.
“This is complimentary. Also a soup or salad.”
Wow. I go for the soup, seeing the night outside’s fresh, now I’m cooling down. It’s a red lentil soup. Atiq works away in the kitchen, then brings out both sandwiches on a red tray. They’re thick pita breads, nice and hot, held around the tzatziki-covered meat by a wrap of paper.
I attack that kobida like a cobra. Man, I need this. It is so tender and delish with freshness of the tzatziki. Bit of hot sauce doesn’t hurt, either. Sweet tea sluices it down. Lentil soup’s gentle and chewy.
By now I’m remembering this place. “Is it still Greek?” I ask Atiq.
“Mediterranean,” he says. “I am from Afghanistan. Most of these customers tonight are Afghan. This is sort of their cultural center. We are speaking mostly Farsi, Persian.”
And pretty soon he’s introducing me to the chess players. “This is Fieq, the professor,” he says. Fieq teaches philosophy, critical thinking, at City College. “Next time, you should try a real Afghan dish, like qabili pulaw,” he says. “It’s our Afghan national dish.”
Seems qabili pulaw’s slow-roasted lamb with basmati rice on top and raisins, carrots, and anything from orange-peel strips to chopped pistachios and almonds sprinkled all over.
“‘Qabili,’ ‘kabuli,’ it’s named after Kabul, our capital,” Fieq says.
“We have it on Tuesday nights,” says Atiq. “It costs $12.”
Atiq used to be a translator for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “Yes, it was dangerous for me, and my family, as it was for anyone helping the Americans. I was with advisors training Afghan forces.”
You can see there’s a world of untold stories there.
But I’ve gotta finish my kobida. Meat is so savory, and yet the thing I appreciate most is the pita. It’s thick, but not doughy, and tender, not chewy. And with the hot sauce, you get enough challenge to the taste buds.
’Course, I have to pluck a couple of chunks from Carla’s sandwich. Taste test. I mean, lamb is lamb, more gamey. Which means, for me, more interesting. It passes the tenderness test, too. I stop before it looks too picked apart.
Gotta go. Pity. I love the atmosphere here. I say goodbye to the professor and to Atiq, then check my watch. Oh, man! Less than 20 minutes before that last trolley. Break into a jog.
I’ll be back, though, and this time, ready for Qabili pulaw. And chess.
Prices: Saganaki (flaming-cheese dish), $7.45; gyros sandwich, $6.45; kobida (ground marinated beef) kebab, $6.45; lamb kebab sandwich, $7.45; Greek salad, $9.95; moussaka plate (eggplant, ground beef, baked béchamel sauce), $14.95; fish kebab (salmon) $14.95; qabili pulaw (lamb, rice, raisins, carrots), $12; Zeus burger, fries, $7.95; falafel sandwich, $6.45
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily
Nearest bus stop: Rosecrans and Malaga streets