Inside the tent, a glimpse of the traditional, old Uzbek lifestyle
You won’t see it from the street. Samarkand Uzbek Café has an El Cajon Boulevard address (4201 B, El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights), but when we pulled up for dinner, the building was dark. We took a look in the parking lot around back, and still didn’t spot it. At first. Eventually, in a far corner of the lot, I noticed the white tent.
4201 B El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
Not until I passed inside did I realize we were dining in one of San Diego’s most colorful and culturally authentic restaurants.
The place didn’t exist before a couple of months ago. This space was a section of parking lot of the Grandstand events venue, which owner and restaurateur Ike Gazaryan had converted to a storehouse for a grocery delivery service early in the pandemic.
Hard to find but worth it: a tent restaurant half-hidden in a City Heights parking lot
Gazaryan’s Gaslamp restaurant Pushkin nominally serves Russian cuisine. But the Armenian (by way of Soviet republic) entrepreneur spent 12 years living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and had hoped one day to open a restaurant celebrating its rich culinary heritage. Those plans were accelerated when the city started allowing restaurants to serve food in parking lots.
Samarkand-style floor dining, in booth number one
Historically a major hub on the Silk Road, Samarkand dates back thousands of years, making it one of the oldest and most influential cities in Central Asia. Americans hardly know a thing about the place, so Gazaryan determined to bring its sense of color and flavor. He imported tapestries and pillows to bring saturated hues of red, orange, and gold. Though decorative, most seating is split between more familiar tables and booths furnished with colorful patterns and throw pillows. However, one wraparound booth is set up in traditional fashion, with a raised base allowing guests to sit on floor pillows while they eat. Even the tent is true enough to the yurt-style living of old Uzbekistan.
Charcoal grilled lamb ribs
The food itself matches this authenticity. To accomplish this, Gazaryan partnered with Russian chef Larry Tsoi, who until recently operated three Uzbek restaurants in Moscow. Working in the makeshift parking lot kitchen, Tsoi cooks with mesquite charcoal, resulting in tender kabobs and my succulent order of lamb ribs ($22), served with a borscht-like tomato sauce flavored with dill.
Hand-pulled lagman noodles
While these dishes combine familiar elements from Russia and the Middle East, Uzbekistan is just as close to Western China. And so the centuries long exchange of influences brings dumplings and hand pulled noodles to Samarkind’s menu. The manti (dumplings, $20) feature more lamb, ground, while the lagman noodles ($16) are prepared with cubed beef. One of the thick, toothsome noodles in my dish measured about three feet long! Appropriate, considering I could have eaten this dish all day long.
The traditional Uzbek bread, lepyoshka
From noodles to soup to lepyoshka — the lavash-like bread of Uzbekistan — Samarkand’s food is made from scratch daily, and turns out excellent, especially considering the makeshift circumstances. Given this is a restaurant that could vanish once the current rules of the pandemic expire, now is the time to seek out and embrace the parking lot oasis Samarkand provides. And maybe to come back often. Gazaryan says they’re adding to the menu more dishes rare to the West Coast all the time.