Palestine. It's a name familiar to all of us from evening-news reports and morning newspapers. We all have opinions, some of us more than one. Images cascade: the intifada, the bombed-out carcass of a bus in Tel Aviv or cratered Gaza buildings, crying children amid wreckage on both sides of a wall that Robert Frost might have advised against.
We think we know about it. We think we know the narrative, the history, the culture and the story. We may know less than we think. Indeed, for all we think we know of Palestine, one thing we probably don't think we know much about is Palestinian food. An excellent place to explore the cuisine is at Haritna Mediterranean Restaurant in La Mesa.
Likely the first dishes that come to mind—falafel and hummus—are certainly found in Palestine. Then again, those or similar dishes are also found all over Israel (and, indeed, elsewhere in the region). Like seemingly everything else in the Middle East, the origin and ownership of these dishes is disputed. Israelis claim them. Palestinians claim them. Egyptians claim they're both wrong.
In fact, neither dish is the best thing to have at Haritna (7303 El Cajon Blvd.). While the flavor profile of the falafel works, it lacks the textural contrast between crispy exterior and fluffy, light interior of the best to be found in the labyrinthine souk that is Jerusalem's Old City. The hummus is good but hardly extraordinary. While Haritna's version is significantly better than average, it didn't have the subtle balance of chickpea, tahini, lemon and olive oil that marks the best hummus. More interesting than the hummus was the fool, essentially a variation on the same dish, but made with fava beans instead of chickpeas.
If the hummus and falafel were less than exceptional, the same cannot be said about Haritna's lamb kidneys sautéed in olive oil with onions and garlic. The caramelized exterior of the kidneys encapsulate a savory and surprisingly mild, meaty interior with only the slightest of mineral-like reminders that you're eating organ meat. If you can bring yourself to get past the idea of eating offal, this appetizer is an extraordinary experience.
The best of the meat main dishes was the lamb kabab—chunks of spiced lamb skewered, grilled with onion and tomato, served over basmati rice and accompanied by a green salad. While the salad was slightly underdressed and the onion undercooked, the lamb—the star of the plate—was perfectly cooked, as was the tomato. Eating a bit of the tomato with the lamb together offers a brilliant bite: savory and meaty with hints of sweetness and acid. The basmati rice is made Lebanese-style, mixed with vermicelli pasta and more than a bit of fat.
The flavors at Haritna are decidedly—and unsurprisingly—Mediterranean. The accent, while Arabic, is comfortably familiar. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Palestinian food is that we know more about it than we thought. Now, about those walls.