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Zad Mediterranean proves flavor is more important than location

Why fans of Iraqi food are dining in Spring Valley

The mixed grill platter, served with pickled vegetables atop fresh tanour flatbread
The mixed grill platter, served with pickled vegetables atop fresh tanour flatbread

Zad Mediterranean Cuisine sits several hundred feet down a peculiar, obsolete offshoot of Campo Road that dead ends beneath highway 94. Technically, Zad is visible from the eastbound lanes, but the storefront’s muted hues are easy to overlook behind the vibrant, attention-seeking colors of fast food joints dominating the nearest intersection. I drive past every day, and it took me months to notice the place. However, when I finally did find it, Zad’s comfortable dining rooms and patios were packed. Now, a couple months later, I’m among the regular guests, crowding in.

Place

Zad Mediterranean Cuisine

3515 Sweetwater Springs Boulevard #1, Spring Valley

For years, I’ve followed the conventional wisdom, that the region’s best Middle Eastern eats may be found in the vicinity of Little Baghdad, El Cajon. But as my wife and I race to claim the last piece of pickled okra from our shared platter, it’s dawning on me: San Diego’s best Iraqi food might be right here, in the northeastern corner of Spring Valley.

I can only say might, because Zad shows me how much I’m still learning about this culinary tradition, even if a lot seems familiar. For example, when the tanour arrives at our table, I immediately compare it to the Indian flatbread, naan, which is baked against the clay walls of a tandoor oven. Only later do I piece it together that this flatbread is named for the Middle Eastern clay oven called a tanoor. The missing D doesn’t affect the outcome much: as with naan, this tanour is so good I want to eat it with every dish on the table.

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A meze platter of (clockwise from bottom): stuffed grape leaves, Iraqi salad, jajeek, and mtabbal

It's a little more embarrassing is when I order mtabbal as part of four-piece meze platter ($15), imagining it to be an alternate name for baba ghanoush. Only, here’s what I haven’t considered: mtabbal (in some places mutabbal) is exactly the dish I’ve been calling baba ghanoush my entire adult life. They’re quite similar eggplant pastes, but whereas mtabbal is the tahini-infused dip I covet, actual baba ghanoush doesn’t feature tahini (sesame) at all; rather diced tomatoes (and sometimes pomegranate). I will miss saying the words “baba ghanoush,” but will order Zad’s terrific mtabbal to go with the tanour every time.

For only a few moments before lunch, the dining room remains empty.

Learning the finer points of language and cooking techniques will help me better understand the hows and whys of Zad’s menu. But I knew enough walking in off the street to recognize grilled meats, and well-seasoned skewers are ultimately what make Zad Mediterranean so memorable.

Meat options range from chicken to salmon, but I’d suggest making it easy to start by ordering a mixed grill platter for $25. This highlights Zad’s signature ground beef and lamb kofta kabob, shish taouk chicken, and veal kebab. I know plenty of Southern Californians who would steer clear of the veal, but apparently after trying this, I’m no longer one of them. I can also vouch for the veal shawarma ($17), though in any case it’s easy to opt for chicken instead.

I wish I had an inkling of the spice blends at work in these dishes. Some of the flavor-forward blends are more distinctive than others, but I have yet to find a false note. My wife seems to prefer the shish taouk, but I keep shifting allegiance to whichever is currently on my fork. Or sandwiched between pieces of flatbread.

In the event Zad isn’t the best Iraqi grill in town, someone please tell me what is. Because I can’t seem to get enough.

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The mixed grill platter, served with pickled vegetables atop fresh tanour flatbread
The mixed grill platter, served with pickled vegetables atop fresh tanour flatbread

Zad Mediterranean Cuisine sits several hundred feet down a peculiar, obsolete offshoot of Campo Road that dead ends beneath highway 94. Technically, Zad is visible from the eastbound lanes, but the storefront’s muted hues are easy to overlook behind the vibrant, attention-seeking colors of fast food joints dominating the nearest intersection. I drive past every day, and it took me months to notice the place. However, when I finally did find it, Zad’s comfortable dining rooms and patios were packed. Now, a couple months later, I’m among the regular guests, crowding in.

Place

Zad Mediterranean Cuisine

3515 Sweetwater Springs Boulevard #1, Spring Valley

For years, I’ve followed the conventional wisdom, that the region’s best Middle Eastern eats may be found in the vicinity of Little Baghdad, El Cajon. But as my wife and I race to claim the last piece of pickled okra from our shared platter, it’s dawning on me: San Diego’s best Iraqi food might be right here, in the northeastern corner of Spring Valley.

I can only say might, because Zad shows me how much I’m still learning about this culinary tradition, even if a lot seems familiar. For example, when the tanour arrives at our table, I immediately compare it to the Indian flatbread, naan, which is baked against the clay walls of a tandoor oven. Only later do I piece it together that this flatbread is named for the Middle Eastern clay oven called a tanoor. The missing D doesn’t affect the outcome much: as with naan, this tanour is so good I want to eat it with every dish on the table.

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A meze platter of (clockwise from bottom): stuffed grape leaves, Iraqi salad, jajeek, and mtabbal

It's a little more embarrassing is when I order mtabbal as part of four-piece meze platter ($15), imagining it to be an alternate name for baba ghanoush. Only, here’s what I haven’t considered: mtabbal (in some places mutabbal) is exactly the dish I’ve been calling baba ghanoush my entire adult life. They’re quite similar eggplant pastes, but whereas mtabbal is the tahini-infused dip I covet, actual baba ghanoush doesn’t feature tahini (sesame) at all; rather diced tomatoes (and sometimes pomegranate). I will miss saying the words “baba ghanoush,” but will order Zad’s terrific mtabbal to go with the tanour every time.

For only a few moments before lunch, the dining room remains empty.

Learning the finer points of language and cooking techniques will help me better understand the hows and whys of Zad’s menu. But I knew enough walking in off the street to recognize grilled meats, and well-seasoned skewers are ultimately what make Zad Mediterranean so memorable.

Meat options range from chicken to salmon, but I’d suggest making it easy to start by ordering a mixed grill platter for $25. This highlights Zad’s signature ground beef and lamb kofta kabob, shish taouk chicken, and veal kebab. I know plenty of Southern Californians who would steer clear of the veal, but apparently after trying this, I’m no longer one of them. I can also vouch for the veal shawarma ($17), though in any case it’s easy to opt for chicken instead.

I wish I had an inkling of the spice blends at work in these dishes. Some of the flavor-forward blends are more distinctive than others, but I have yet to find a false note. My wife seems to prefer the shish taouk, but I keep shifting allegiance to whichever is currently on my fork. Or sandwiched between pieces of flatbread.

In the event Zad isn’t the best Iraqi grill in town, someone please tell me what is. Because I can’t seem to get enough.

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