Roasting hot day up here at the top of ECB.
Through the glare I spot a kind of rickshaw perched on the roof of this yellow place called “Suri.”
I roll in through the arched front doors, mainly to get out of the sun.
Man. The relief.
“Hello sir!” calls this voice from the back. I gradually make out a clump of men sitting at a table to the left of shelves of groceries like Syrian cheese ($5.19), parsley (33 cents a bunch), or Rani, a Saudi fruit soda drink ($1.49). To the right, what looks like a kitchen with full grill, hood.
461 El Cajon Boulevard, El Cajon
So what is this? Grocery store or restaurant?
Turns out, both. “Take a seat anywhere,” says this gent. Name’s Abed, short for Abdulkader. “But because I have a son I am also known as ‘Abu Gibril,’ ‘Father of Gibril.’”
He’s Syrian. From Damascus.
They say Damascus (Paul was converted on the road to it) is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. But of course, right now, they are going through hell over there, specially in the city called Idlib.
“But even in bad times, food is important to Syrians,” says Abed. “What would you like?”
“What do you have?” I ask.
Only problem is, the menu screen’s around the corner from the tables. “Let me read it to you,” he says, and stands at the end and starts reading.
“Our best-seller is probably the chicken shawarma wrap ($7.99). Also the vegetarian falafel wrap, which is chickpeas, tahini sauce, spices ($6.99). Or our Suri burger. ‘Suri’ means ‘Syria’ in Arabic. Has beef and lamb, $8.99.”
“But what’s really Syrian?” I ask.
“Well, we have oozi. That’s filo dough wrapped around peas, carrots, lots of rice, and beef, and almonds. Really filling. Comes with yogurt salad. Costs $5.95. Or toshka. It’s ground beef grilled between thin breads. Seasoned and sour. That’s because it has pomegranate syrup in it. Costs $7.95. Also known as maria. Don’t ask me why.”
Now that I’m cool, I’m starved. I ask for one of each. Oozi and toshka. And — since Syrians seem to be into yogurt — a mint-flavored yogurt drink ($2.25).
I start to feel a relaxed vibe in here. People are coming in all the time. Many seem to know each other. “We get Syrians, of course,” says Abed, “but many Chaldean Christians, Lebanese, you name it. They all come for the Syrian food. People look up to Syrian food in the middle east.”
The oozi’s plenty filling and has the bright adds of cucumber yogurt (plus the very natural yogurt drink) and delicate filo pastry. But the best flavor comes in the toshka. It’s the seasoning in these thin ground beef wedges. Addicting! Think it’s a combo of fresh mint, sweet-sour pomegranate, garlic, and walnuts?
“It’s a northern Syrian, Kurdish sandwich,” says Abed. “It’s not really popular where I’m from, Damascus.”
But the winner for sheer down-the-hatch deliciousness has to be the plate Abed brings me after all the rest. It’s called imjiddara (or sometimes moujadara). “This is a special dish we’d always take to the bath house in Damascus. A bunch of friends would go to spend a whole day being pummeled and relaxing, and always, we’d snack on our imjiddara once we’d been through the mill. It was just great on a day off.”
Heck, it only costs $4.95 per pound, and he’s brought out a half-pound plate. I start in. OMG. Imjiddara is a rich protein mess of bulgur wheat, lentils (world’s oldest pulse crop; we’ve been eating it at least 13,000 years), plus some all-spice mix, olive oil, and tangy burned onions on top. Cost: $2.50. Prices are so low, Abed says, partly because competition among Middle East restaurants around here is intense.
I’d go on chowing, but he brings out a little plate with three cheeses on it, a haloom heavy cream Syrian cheese ($6.50/lb), a yogurt ball soaked in olive oil ($5.95/lb), and a shin gleesh, ($7.50/lb). The shin gleesh is really good. It has a coating of thyme and paprika around the outside, and inside too. And combined with my yogurt drink, it tops the meal like a wicked little savory dessert.
It turns out the lady at the cash register is Abed’s American wife, Davina. “It was hoob min awal nazra,” says Abed. “Love at first sight. We met in Nebraska, at Doan University, 30 years ago.”
Yes, of course they had problems: with her parents here, and his parents back in Syria. “Mine said, ‘What are you doing?’” Abdel says. “I just said, ‘Well, I’m in love.” Davina converted. They’ve raised their kids Muslim, and it hasn’t been a big deal. One’s graduated as an IT analyst, another’s at UCSD studying biology on her way to a medical degree, and the youngest, who’s 17, wants to be a lawyer.
“But our youngest had to make a big decision,” says Abed. “She’s been wearing the hijab since 6th grade. But the other day she was downtown, and someone yelled ‘Terrorist!’ And she is just too frightened. She has decided to stop wearing it. I feel sorry, but I understand.”
The beautiful thing is Abu Gibril and Davina started this restaurant and store with one idea in mind: to provide a place where Syrian refugees arriving in San Diego can find a place to go to work, and learn English, and deal with American customers, and basically find their feet. Fifteen have already passed through since they opened 18 months ago.
Add that to the incredible prices, and it’s no wonder this place has such a good vibe.
The Place: Suri Syrian Restaurant and Market, 461 El Cajon Boulevard, El Cajon, 619-334-3999
Hours: 9:30am – 9:30pm, daily
Prices: Chicken shawarma wrap, $7.99; falafel wrap, $6.99; Suri burger (beef and lamb), $8.99; oozi (filo dough wrapped around veggies, rice, beef, almonds), 5.95; toshka (ground beef, thin bread), $7.95; 6 suri wings, potato wedges, $10.95; seasoned fries, $1.99; 3 sambusa (chicken, beef, spinach, or cheese), $4.50; kibbeh (ball of bulgur wheat, meat), $2; hummus, $3.99; tabbouleh salad (bulgur wheat, chopped parsley, $4.95; fattoush (salad, pita bread), $4.95; mint yogurt drink, $2.25
Buses: 115, 815, 816, 833, 848, 864, 872, 874, 875, 888, 891, 892, 894
Trolleys: Orange Line; Green Line
Nearest Bus, Trolley Stop: El Cajon Transit Center, South Marshall Avenue, at Palm