If you're one of those people who shudders at the thought of driving farther east than San Diego State University, you're probably missing out on one of San Diego's most tasty food trends. By that, I mean the rise of Mediterranean food and Middle Eastern food in the East County region.
There are more than 50,000 Chaldeans—Iraqi Christians, predominantly—living in El Cajon, and their presence is making a culinary impact in La Mesa, Rancho San Diego and Jamul.
It's to be expected. Every time a new immigrant comes into a community, the food always gets better. My taste buds still remember when the Vietnamese and Thais came en masse in the 1970s.
Middle Eastern cuisine has really been on the rise since the early 2000s when many Chaldeans moved to East County. A lot of Middle Eastern food seems like a cousin to a popular food of the region: Mexican. Pita bread is like the big brother of tortillas, and both cuisines place an emphasis on rice and beans (or hummus).
There are lots of good places to try, too many to mention here, but it's fun just to walk down Main Street in El Cajon to find a place to call your own. The way things are going, I'm going to start calling this part of the region "Feast County."
Here are a few of my favorites:
Mystic Grill (8191 Fletcher Parkway) in La Mesa is a great stop for your standard hummus and baba ghanoush appetizers, as well as kabob sandwiches. But where they really shine is the seafood. Tasty, fresh and succulent. Going for a shawarma sandwich? I like the beef better than the chicken, but make sure you get lots of the spicy feta cheese sauce—also goes well with fries.
Special note: Mystic Grill shares a building with Vine Ripe, a grocery store full of all sorts of Middle Eastern and Eastern European specialties. I go there to get dolmas (grape leaves in bulk) and well as flat breads made on the premises. The produce prices are some of the cheapest in town, but only if you're making food that night—they go bad pretty quickly.
Sahara Express (2654 Jamacha Road) in Rancho San Diego is the wave of the foodie future to me. Basically, it's a Middle Eastern version of a taco shop, even staying open late—1 a.m.!
All the Middle Eastern basics are here: falafel, kabobs, hummus, but the pickled beet salad also gets high marks. Sahara Express also has my current favorite "lush rush" food: Shawarma fries. Basically, chopped up beef with fries, with tahini dipping sauce. I've driven 15 miles out of the way for this dish. With any luck, hole-in-the-wall joints like this will be popping up all over the county within 10 years.
If your idea of Middle Eastern culture comes from watching Aladdin, Ali Baba (421 E Main Street, El Cajon) is going to appeal to your senses. There is even a special booth set up to look like an old caravan, with rugs and canopy. This place is great to go to with a large group. Feast dinners, ranging from three people on up, provide a lot of tasty grilled foods along with rice and other appetizers starting at $55. Despite your best efforts, you will have leftovers.