Oct. 19 2015 03:24 PM

Incredible man'oushe and dolmas at College Area Lebanese spot

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Za’atar man’oushe
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

On its historic journey from the Northern Middle East to Italy, pita decided to stop over in the vicinity of Lebanon and become man'oushe. The journey from pita to pizza is no doubt a long one—more than just a couple of letters—so it's easy to see why this flatbread decided on a rest stop.

At Alforon (5965 El Cajon Blvd.) in the College Area, owners George and Samia Salameh call the dish simply "flatbread." The word "man'oushe" apparently inspired glazed eyes. Flatbread, though, is such an overused term and so often uninspiring. Don't be fooled. This is not the typical soulless flatbread served at every hipster hotspot on account of its astonishingly high profit margin. A better moniker might be its Turkish name "lahmacun" or the English-language equivalent "Turkish pizza."

In Lebanon, man’oushe is nearly a national breakfast, served rolled, covered in za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend based on dried wild thyme, salt, sesame seeds and sumac) and suspended in olive oil. Alforon serves the dish more as a pizza (perhaps a nod to its College Area location), adding to the za'atar, chopped tomato, olive, mint and labneh (think Greek yogurt's more robust, power-packed cousin). The flatbread itself is chewy but with a crisp exterior, combining the headiness of the za'atar and richness of the labneh with just a bit of acid from the tomato. The effect is both homey and exotic.

Alforon also offers several other styles of man'oushe, such as lahm b'ajeen or "meat with dough," which includes ground beef, fresh tomato, onions and spices. Alforon offers three variations—spicy, with eggs or with cheese. (Choose spicy.) Where the za'atar man'oushe seems exotic this feels more familiar and reads easily as a pizza.

The chicken tawook man'oushe is brilliant: chicken marinated in lemon juice and garlic paste with some cheese and pickle garnishes. Succulent, with sweet, funky, sour and rich flavors and an array of textures, it is a gorgeous dish, both exotic and comforting. The soujouk (spicy beef sausage) man'oushe is also good, the shawarma less so (fully cooked roast meat yields a topping on the jerky side of done).

There are other good items at Alforon but, with one exception, the thing to get is the man'oushe options. That one exception is the stuffed grape leaves. They arrive at the table warm—not, as seems so often the case, just out of the refrigerator—and are juicy and perfectly rolled with a rice-based filling that gives a star turn to a bit player: sundried tomatoes. A creative play on the classic use of dried fruit in dolmata, it is a brilliant little touch that takes the dish over the top.

But as good as those grape leaves are it's the man'oushe that should make you stop at Alforon, much as the pita stopped in Lebanon on its way to pizza. It isn't exactly pizza, of course, just as it's more than pita. What it is in the end is well worth trying.

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