Setting up camp
Mama's Bakery and Lebanese Deli 4237 Alabama St. 619-688-0717
It begins in the diaphragm, the birthplace of sound. It is a nascent ball of thunder bound by its father, the desert. It has echoed across millennia, reverberating off great mountains, across seas-calling together people for worship, soothing them in times of turmoil and accompanying them through arduous journeys. The sound storms through the larynx, fully alive, stopping for neither epiglottis nor tongue and exits into the sultry air of... Alabama Street? Off El Cajon Boulevard?
It is the music of the Lebanese, and it is being broadcast from the stereo in Mama's Bakery in North Park. From the trellised patio where I sit, vines weaving and intertwining above me, I watch the line of patrons grow, and I feel the music from the stereo dancing in my veins. The Arabic chants, so impassioned yet simple and direct, like love-or hunger.
Bread is the staff of life throughout the Arab and Hebrew world. And the sajj oven has always served as the central wheel around which Middle Eastern cuisine turns. It is here that the homemade flatbreads are fired to perfection and the spinach, meat and cheese pies are browned and crisped.
The sajj is a clay oven, much like the Indian tandoori oven but sporting a metal helmet, as if preparing for battle. It's been churning out flatbreads throughout Middle Eastern history. Before there was a Lebanon, an Israel or the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the sajj provided sustenance for Canaanite farmers, Phoenician sailors and countless nomadic tribes throughout Galilee. Silent and mysterious, the sajj is still the focal point of a good Lebanese meal.
The specialty of the house is the manakeesh “ultimate.” They take a flatbread seasoned with thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and olive oil, spread a layer of lebneh (Lebanese cream cheese) on top, then finish it off with tomatoes, mint and olives. The delectable combination of steaming hot bread mingling with the coolness of the fresh veggies and rich lebneh is enough to bring a devout carnivore like myself to his knees.
Being that it was Saturday and we were out to get a solid feed before the night's festivities, my friend and I decided to feast. After the manakeesh we moved onto chicken shawarma and soujok sandwiches with a side of hummus, a meat-and-cheese pie and some fool mudamas (I must admit we had to wrap up some of the hummus and fool mudamas). All that combined with a pair of medium-sized baklava squares for dessert and a couple of sodas was just over $20. A pair of normal people could easily satiate themselves for around $10.
Shawarma, a ubiquitous late-night snack found on city streets from London to Karachi, comes with your choice of marinated, thinly sliced beef, lamb or chicken topped with a zesty tahini sauce and rolled up with lettuce, tomatoes, parsley and pickles. Mama's chicken shawarma is prepared with a garlic marinade and would give even the master shawarma carvers of the Sinai a run for their money.
The soujouk sandwich is marked by a lemon zest that calls the taste buds to attention that is followed by a wave of spice that knocks them down. This Turkish/Armenian classic composed of beef sausage and the usual cast of veggies is topped off with hummus to counteract a bit of the spice and to add extra flavor. This is certainly the best meat item on the menu. If you enjoy a good kielbasa, brat or chorizo, then a soujouk sandwich should be in your future.
Pulling the old Thanksgiving Day top-button maneuver, my friend and I slide back a bit and catch our breath. The walls are adorned with old black and white reproductions of Beirut, rural Lebanon and Roman ruins in Northern Africa. “A beautiful city,” remarks the man at the table adjacent to ours, “so much life and vigor, and so much sadness.”
He, like my friend, is Lebanese and claims to be a regular at Mama's. “I guess I'm a regular. I don't know, I see a lot of the same faces in here all the time-Lebanese families, other Arabs, students, surfers, everybody, we're all regulars.”
Indeed, with a quick scan around me, I was surprised to see the amount of diversity congregated on the small patio. Most of them were grooving with the music as they chomped down falafel, spinach pies and manakeesh, some humming along as they chewed.
The pies at Mama's are served between two pieces of flatbread, unlike the Greek-style philo-dough shell, and filled with your choice of fresh spinach, a jack and feta cheese mixture, ground beef, spiced and minced with onion and tomato, or any combination of the three.
The meat and cheese pie turned out to be not only delicious-a hint of cinnamon behind every bite-but useful as well. Having finished our bread with the hummus we used the slices of the meat-and-cheese pie to eat our fool mudamas. A tantalizing fava and garbanzo bean stew, fool mudamas is usually eaten by scooping it up with pita or flatbread, but the pie substitution worked out just as well and turned out to be a fantastic fusion.
We finished off with the baklava-thin, honey-sweetened philo leaves with walnuts and pistachios-which put the finishing touches on an epic Saturday meal. Smiling with satisfaction, we bid the man next to us a fond “Salaam” and headed for the car.