Free pickled veggies at El Cajon's Bab Al-Hara
I arrived too early. For Ramadan, that is. This was before last Sunday, when Ramadan began. I came because I was curious about what you eat if you are Muslim and fasting for the month.
Ramadan seems a lot like Christian Lent. Basically, no eating between dawn and dusk. This year it’s from June 5th to July 5th. Of course, after the sun has set, you can have at it. And, turns out Middle-Eastern restaurants here in El Cajon put on feasts that make the day’s fast worth it.
Mary Beth and Christie gave me a ride in their Jeep up here to find out. Uh, they’re early birds. It’s only eight, in the morning! We head into what looks like an ex–Jack in the Box on East Main, just across from Ali Baba’s restaurant. This eatery’s called Bab Al-Hara. Means “Door to the Village,” according to Vivian, the gal up front.
She says it’s called that because the owners are Syrians. “Bab Al-Hara is the name of a Syrian soap opera set in 1930s Damascus. It runs for the whole month of Ramadan,” she says. “It is the most popular TV show in the Middle East, among Muslim, Christian, Druze, and Jewish communities all around the region.”
“Do they have, like, straight breakfast dishes?” asks Christie.
“Straight Middle-East breakfast dishes,” says Mary Beth. She’s Christie’s mom. Christie’s 16.
We sit down at a black faux marble table and check out the menus. Ramadan’s one thing, but actually now I’m curious as to what Syrians eat for breakfast. For starters: coffee? No American coffee here. Only Iraqi. Mary Beth and I go for that. Christie gets a pot of tea. Whole lot cost $5.
The coffee is that concentrated kind in small delicate ceramic cups, with a sludge of grounds in the bottom. Mine needs two packets of sugar to make it tasty, but man, how tasty then. Vivian says it’s because of the little green pod she brings out.
“Aha,” says Mary Beth. “Cardamom.” And, boy, it delivers a spicy flavor. Same with the tea, in tall little glass cups.
The main menu has lots of the usual suspects: kebabs, chicken tikka, beef shawarma, fattoush salad.
But in the breakfast section, it gets more interesting. Fava beans with oil ($5.95), fava beans with yogurt, tomatoes ($4.95), makhlama (turns out it’s an Iraqi omelet, with egg, beef, vegetables, $5.95), chili fry (some kind of mess-up with beef, tomato, onion, bell pepper, spices, $5.95), and “bastorma with eggs (think pastrami, $5.95).
Christie’s first out of the box. “I’ll have the chili-fry. Sounds like something I’d recognize.”
“Tomatoes and eggs for me,” says Mary Beth.
“The omelet,” I say, “the makhlama.”
“Maybe some rice,” says Christie.
“And maybe something Syrian,” I say. I’m kinda intrigued that the owners are Syrian. What do their poor suffering countrymen eat for breakfast when they’re not being bombed or kidnapped?
“Zaatar. Every Syrian has zaatar for breakfast,” says Vivian. She knows. She was a kid there. “It’s a flatbread with cheese, and mainly thyme on top. But also sumac and sesame seeds and cheese.”
So, what the heck. It’s only $2.95.
Problem? We have ordered way too much. The makhlama, the chili-fry, the tomatoes and eggs...each is a full round plate. Then the zaatar, this herby flatbread, a meal unto itself. Then a plate of four falafel one of us ordered ($1). Then the steaming yellow mountain of Christie’s basmati rice ($2.95). Then a plate of red and yellow pickled turnips and cauliflower and cucumber (free), and another plate loaded with a mountain of turtle-shaped breads (free), hot out of a tandoori right here. I work out we’ve spent about $30 between us, but what a feast!
Mary Beth’s eggs and tomato
So, I have to sample the ladies’ plates. Christie’s chili-fry is spicy but not hot, a messy mix of meat and tomatoes and onions. Mary Beth’s egg-and-bacon combo is nice and garlicky, but my makhlama takes the prize. It has some extra zest in it.
“Curry,” says Vivian.
Of course. Guess Iraq isn’t so far from Pakistan and India.
Bread baked two minutes ago.
But maybe the most mysteriously interesting is my zaatar, the flatbread that looks green and brown, like a desert after rain. “It’s mostly thyme,” Vivian says, “but they finish up scattering sumac on it to give it that sour taste.”
What with all these dishes, it’s too much deliciosity for one boy and two ladies to handle. We’ll have to pack and take it with us.
“You should come back any night during this Ramadan season,” says Vivian. “We have a special feast that starts at nine o’clock every night and goes on till one in the morning. It’s a buffet. Fifteen dollars, all you can eat, $10 for children, and we’ll have extra dishes not even on the menu.”
Hmm... A nice reward for holding off all day long.
“And we’re trying to get TV monitors installed,” she says. “So people can watch their show.”
Oh, yeah, Bab Al-Hara, the Syrian soap opera. Wonder how they can keep producing it with the war and all. But, 50 million viewers can’t be denied. They say the Arab world watches it out of a yearning for simpler times.
I pay up. Ask Vivian how long they have been open.
“Six months,” she says. “Actually, we get more American customers than Iraqis. That’s why we put a lot of flatbreads on the menu. We know you like pizza.”
388 E. Main Street, El Cajon
Hours: 7 a.m.–1 a.m. daily
Prices: Makhlama (Iraqi omelet, with beef, vegetables), $5.95; chili fry (beef, tomato, onion, bell pepper, spices), $5.95; bastorma with eggs (think pastrami, $5.95); curry broth, $2.49 (small), $3.95 (large); zaatar, cheese, thyme, $2.95; beef kebab, $1.95; gyro plate, $6.95; 1 lb. rib-tip dinner, $7.95; chicken tikka sandwich, garlic sauce, $2.95; beef shawarma, $7.95; four falafel, $1;
Buses: 815, 816, 871, 888, 894
Nearest bus stops: East Main at Ballantyne/Avocado
Trolley: Green Line, Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: El Cajon (a mile away!)