Whether it's a gyro, kebab or shawarma, most people are familiar with seasoned meat, sliced from a spit, wrapped in pillowy flatbread and dressed up with a tangy yogurt sauce. But dig a little deeper—beyond the familiar sandwiches, past the catchall term "Mediterranean," and you'll find something more evocative. Café Papillon and Bakery, a Persian eatery in San Marcos (327 S. Rancho Santa Fe Road), is just such a place for some culinary exploring.
All of the food at Café Papillon is "Halal," a term describing food considered permissible under Islamic law. This could encompass how an animal is slaughtered in preparation for eating, or rules dictating the avoidance of any food product containing swine, from obvious things like pork to the less well-known, like gelatin.
On my first encounter, I opted for the Kabob Koobideh Wrap, a zestier and more compact version of a gyro. Seasoned ground beef makes up the heart of the wrap, with a thinner-than-pita lavash holding everything together. Dill pickles give the sandwich a briny zing.
There's no food I hate more than walnuts, which is why I confused myself by ordering Fesenjan, a ruby-hued paste of ground chicken, walnuts and pomegranate molasses. The walnuts are ground so fine that my mouth didn't even realize it was eating its No. 1 nemesis. Though this dish looks somewhat unappetizing, the taste is wholly unique: sour, sweet, and rich. Mixed with basmati rice, the tangy and exotic creation is one of those specific and interesting food finds I love discovering.
Fans of baba ghanoush should check out the kashke bademjan, a salad with cool, cooked eggplant plus onions, mint, garlic and spices. It's a creamy and mild side that nicely offsets the pungent fesenjan.
Less appealing to me was the Salad Olivieh, a total mayonnaise bomb. Normally I'd consider that a selling point—I could eat mayo with a spoon (I know, you're grossed out). But this creamy salad was just too much. Joining the potatoes and eggs in the salad were carrots, sweet peas and dill pickles. The sweetness in the mayo made me think of Miracle Whip—I would have preferred a saltier dish.
Be sure to explore the adjoining Persepolis Market, stocked with basic grains and beans, prepared deli-style dishes, as well as less-familiar ingredients that would turn up the volume on the pantry of any epicurean. Pick up a jar of orange-blossom jelly, rose water, hard cardamom candies or dill-pickle paste with lemon.
Though Café Papillon is also a bakery, the market contains a huge collection of Middle Eastern baked goods from Abraham Bakery in Sylmar. I took home a box of nazook—sweet, toothsome triangles that taste of butter and vanilla. I dipped mine in milk while sitting on the couch, but I'm guessing they'd be even more amazing with a cup of mint tea and a less banal setting.
Explore the all-you-can-eat buffet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and find some exotic flavors of your own.
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