In Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declined to define "hardcore pornography," writing, instead: "I know it when I see it." The same might be said of Middle Eastern food. A good place to get to know it locally would be Kabob House (2479 Broadway) in Golden Hill.
Middle Eastern food is less a distinct cuisine than it is a group of dishes appearing in various forms over a vast swath of land stretching from North Africa to the Russian steppes, and from Turkey down through the Arabian peninsula. The names, while familiar, sometimes refer to completely different dishes. Kebab, for example, might be chunks of meat grilled on a skewer (which might also be called souvlaki or shashlik). Or, it could be pressed meat sliced off a vertical spit and served in pita or lafa bread (which could also be called döner, gyros or shawarma).
One dish understood through most of the region, and with only one name, is falafel. It's a dish at which Kabob House excels. Falafel is deep-fried balls of ground beans (particularly garbanzos or favas) served in pita or lafa with a tahini-based sauce. Kabob House's version, made with multiple bean varieties, including garbanzos, is wonderfully crispy on the outside and particularly fluffy on the inside. It's well seasoned, with notes of cumin, coriander, sumac, parsley and onion. The tahini sauce was elegant, with a good balance of nuttiness, acid and texture. It was also artfully drizzled on the falafel, which is served as a side or in a pita sandwich. If there was anything wrong with the falafel, it was the absence of pickled vegetables and excellent hot sauce, which generally accompanies the fritters in the Middle East.
Kabob House's sliced meats—they call it "shwarma"—were not as good. The beef was overly dry, leaving far too much work for the yogurt-based tzaziki sauce to accomplish. Their "kabob" (ground meat grilled on skewers) was far better—everything you like in a grilled hamburger. One thing they do well throughout the Middle East is grill chunks of meat. Kabob House's Chaldean owners are no exception. The unattractively named chicken "chunk meat" was a particularly good choice, caramelized on the outside, juicy on the inside and well seasoned.
Kabob House's "Plates" are served with rice or couscous. Go with the rice, it's a great dish. The texture is perfect, each grain distinct and the broth it's cooked in gives the rice a savory, mouth-filling flavor. Plates are also served with two sides: falafel, of course, is an excellent choice; tabouleh (a parsley and couscous salad) and hummus are always good, but the stuffed grape leaves (dolma) were slightly underseasoned.
It may be difficult to define Middle Eastern cuisine in any generally applicable way, but when you see perfectly formed, perfectly fried falafel, and that crispy exterior gives way to a fluffy, savory interior, you know you've found it. When it's that good, like Potter Stewart and pornography, you know it when you see it.