Day 62: Iraq
As I write this, at 4:36 in the morning, Barack Obama is officially the President-elect of the United States of America. So what better day is there than this to eat the cuisine of Iraq. Man Bites World (A.K.A., GirlfriendBites and I) is in San Diego for a couple of days to get some of the food that doesn’t seem to be available in the greater Los Angeles area. It may exist up there, but I certainly couldn’t find it.
A day of heavy traffic, with election updates playing in a constant loop on the radio, has led us to Ali-Baba Family Restaurant in El Cajon, California. Recommended to us by a friend who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, we enter the bright, but off-white restaurant filled with tassels, drapes and drawings of men riding donkeys with sad looks on their faces. It’s understandably hard to tell from the menu or any signs on the outside of the restaurant that the cuisine here is Iraqi, but with any inquiry whatsoever, the servers are quick to confirm the idea. We’re pretty beat today after a series of frustrating setbacks this morning, including our car breaking down not once, but twice, and a washing machine repair guy arriving at our apartment at 8 o’clock in the morning. But we have made it, and we’re hungry.
Our timid, friendly server recommends the “Feast For Two People” and tea. We agree, partially just wanting to eat quickly so we can check into our hotel and continue following the election results. A few minutes later, a plate of hummus, a large salad and two extra-large-pizza sized pieces of round, lavash-like bread are laid before us. In the Middle East, much of the food is very similar, but has slight differences in the execution. That’s a difficult thing to totally pick up on, considering that there are subtle differences within the execution in the country itself, as well as from restaurant to restaurant. But this place is reputed to be “authentic Iraqi”, so we’ll just have to take their word for it. I ask our server what is in the pink-ish salad dressing and he goes back to check, then returns and says “oil and vinegar and a little coloring for the… color”. Oddly satisfied with his answer, I tear a piece of bread and dip into the particularly nutty tasting hummus.
A few minutes later, a “Feast For Two People” arrives which could easily feed four. Kabab, chicken kabab, chicken tekka, shawarma, pickled vegetables rice and burghel (a grain somewhere between rice and cous cous) all rest on a huge platter with a serving spoon and a set of tongs. Each dish is perfectly fine on its own, but GFB points out “It’s so much better all together and with the hummus.” I agree and we begin to talk about the phenomenon that I’ve been discovering at a lot with Middle Eastern restaurants, where I usually end up being much happier with a sandwich than with the platter. It’s not that I’m incapable of mixing the ingredients into the proper proportions, but for some reason when they toss it all inside of something starchy for me, with all the juices dripping into each other, it just seems to come out better—and cheaper. A sandwich, which is always plenty of food, will usually run you five or six bucks. But a feast for two, while still a good deal for the quantity, is thirty-five dollars. But who needs that much food? I don’t want to have to worry that my leftovers will fit in a hotel mini fridge.
But the food is very good and more than anything, I’m just happy that an Iraqi restaurant can exist in our country and actually stay in business— even if you do have to drive two and a half hours (or in our case, four and half hours) to get there. Realistically and with any normal standards of human existence, is it hard to rationalize driving all day to eat a quick meal that isn’t all that different from, say, Lebanese, Egyptian or Syrian? You betcha. But this Personal Food Project in Blog Form is much more about what can be done, rather than what would. And speaking of what can be done, an African American man with Hussein as his middle name is going to be our next President of The United States of America. Democrat or Republican, that’s pretty darn cool. Just like with all of the restaurants I’ve been able to find on this Personal Food Project in Blog Form, whether or not it’s something you would pick for yourself, it is very nice simply knowing that you can. And it is good, I must say, to have something different every once in a while.
Ali-Baba Family Restaurant
421 E Main St
El Cajon, CA 92020
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 feast for 2
Distance From My House: 138 miles