Ofer and Amir, the two brothers
It’s a town in Israel. Ofer just mentioned that he and his brother Amir are from there. Suddenly I’m interested. Because he says Kiriat Motzkin is not far from Haifa and right next door to the Golan Heights. You can imagine the tensions they must have lived through over the years.
Ofer and Amir are both rangy 30-something guys. I’m wondering if they dreamed of coming to California to be able to just, well, relax.
“Maybe we’ll talk later. Please check the specials. I’ll be back,” says Ofer. And then he’s throwing half a dozen pita breads into a toaster oven. Amir has already disappeared into the kitchen.
6548 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
So, yes, looking at a menu of actual Israeli food here. I found this place up here at El Cajon Boulevard and Rolando. Not totally sure what to expect, apart from something vaguely Mediterranean. The decor’s sorta plain: white walls with stainless steel backing in the area behind the counter. But they’ve mounted nice old tinted photos on the walls. Eiffel Tower, red British phone boxes in London, crowds in New York’s Times Square, maybe in the ’50s. On the left they have a bar jutting out with a bunch of craft beers on tap. Including, happy to see, Alpine’s Duet IPA.
I take a seat. Think I’m hearing Hebrew words, perhaps also Arabic. You feel like you’re entering one of the hot spots of world history when you step in.
“I’m from Kuwait,” says Abdul, who’s waiting in line. “I really like that it’s genuine Mediterranean food here. And I keep coming back for the chicken breast schnitzel. It’s so crispy.”
That’s nice. The whole Arab-Israeli thing looks so bad on paper, but in real life, these guys are all from the same region and prefer the same food. So, no biggie.
I check the wall menu. Oh, yes: chicken breast fried schnitzel, plus one side and one salad, $9.95. Or fried schnitzel in a pita bread for $7.95.
They have a rack of sides like rice, cabbage in tomato sauce, hummus, baba ganoush, Romanian eggplant, sauerkraut. Salads like cauliflower, green cabbage, Turkish, matbucha. Actually “salad” might be a stretch for matbucha. It’s more like an appetizer; basically a mix of tomatoes with garlic, bell peppers, paprika, and jalapeño. Out of Morocco (they call it the Moroccan salsa) and up there with hummus and baba ganoush in popularity in Israel.
Their combo meals include a chicken-thigh skewer with a side, a salad, and a soda ($11.50) and an Angus burger plus fries and fountain drink for $10.50. Kebab skewers of beef or lamb-and-beef go for $9.95. Lots of vegetarian choices in pita for around $7. But then there’s shakshuka.
“Shakshuka?” says Cody the cashier, when I ask. “Two sunny-side up eggs in a sauce of veggies. Really popular.”
Turns out shakshuka sort of means “shake-shake.” The eggs are usually swimming in a little sea of tomato, chili, onions and other veggies. It arrived in Israel with Tunisian and Moroccan Jews who migrated in the 1950s. But originally, this dish goes way back, to the Carthaginians. That’s the thing. So many of these foods are drenched in history. I almost get the shakshuka. You need a lot of bread to mop it up. Love that. In Israel it’s breakfast or it can be an evening, dish too. Here, it costs $8.95.
But Ofer’s right about the best deal. Specials blackboard has three. “Chicken breast on grill in pita,” plus a pint of craft beer, $11.95 (“And that means any craft beer,” he swears, which makes this a totally good deal). Or falafel in a pita plus a craft beer, $10.95. Or five small salad items plus pita for $7.95.
Falafel and beer go together like a horse and carriage.
I’m a little light in the lettuce department tonight, so I go for the falafel-beer deal. Even though the chicken’d probably deliver more bang for that extra buck.
So glad I did, though. When it comes, my pita’s like a little grouper, mouth wide open with two big falafel balls and a bunch of cucumber and pickled cabbage sticking out; and other veggies back up the main event inside.
Of course, falafel are these deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas and/or fava beans, and go back to the pharoahs of Egypt. We’re eating history here! And totally vegetarian. Today they’re news, too: falafel has almost become a political football between Egyptians, Palestinians, and Israelis as to whose national dish it is.
Whatever, delish is the word, and I’m surprised at how filling it is, especially combined with my pint of Alpine Duet IPA.
Finally, Ofer gets a moment.
“What made us decide to come to California?” he says. “It was a dream to come and start a restaurant. And why San Diego? Because you have about 100,000 Jewish San Diegans living here, but unlike in L.A., very few Israeli restaurants.”
Aha. So, Israeli food isn’t the same as, say, New York Jewish deli food?
“They are following more central European food traditions,” says Ofer. “We are more Mediterranean. Geography! Climate! Even though our parents came from Europe — Mom from Poland, Dad from Romania — Israel’s neighborhood is Mediterranean. We eat what grows in our region.”
But he hopes to bring to San Diego the fanaticism about freshness and ingredients that he says Israel is famous for. “For example, our pita bread? We import it from Israel. U.S. pita is made from different flour. It’s more bready. These things are important. And the Jewish community notices.”
Will I be back? For sure, with Carla. She’s the history buff. Besides, she’ll appreciate that shakshuka sounds like a fresh take on brekky, her favorite meal of the day.
Hours: 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. daily; closed Tuesday
Prices: Shakshuka (two sunny-side up eggs in a sauce of veggies), $8.95; matbucha salad (tomatoes, garlic, bell peppers, paprika, jalapeño), $4.95; chicken breast fried schnitzel (plus side and salad), $9.95; fried schnitzel in pita bread, $7.95; chicken-thigh skewer, with side, salad, soda, $11.50; Angus burger, fries, soda, $10.50; kebab skewers (beef or lamb and beef), $9.95; shawarma in pita, $5.95; daily specials (e.g., grilled chicken breast in pita with craft beer), $11.95; falafel in pita with craft beer, $10.95; five small salad items plus pita, $7.95
Nearest bus stop: El Cajon Boulevard and Rolando Boulevard