Middle Eastern food, unlike most other cuisines, comes from many countries, each with its own version of such well-known dishes as hummus (chickpea purée with sesame paste), baba ganoosh (roasted eggplant purée) and tabbouleh (finely chopped parsley with bulgur). San Diego affords many choices for Middle Eastern food; this week I'll focus on four Lebanese places where I found myriad variations that feature homemade, rather than mass-produced, dishes.
Smack in the middle of Hillcrest is the newest entry for Lebanese cuisine, Rannoosh. Not your homespun hole in the wall, like Mama's Bakery & Lebanese Deli or Phoenicia Cuisine & Bakery, this place is designed to give the feeling of being in an exotic locale. Cleverly decorated with fabric on the ceiling and walls, it's what I might imagine a Beirut cafe to look like. There are hookahs prominently displayed, and should you need a smoke, you can do so with one on the front patio.
The food: Hummus made from scratch is silky and light. The finely pureed, smoky flavored baba ganoosh is mostly eggplant with a hint of tahini (sesame paste) and is one of the best I've encountered outside of my own kitchen. Tabbouleh is, as it should be, mostly green with parsley with a bit of bulgur wheat. Homemade beef and lamb spicy sausages about the size of baby cigars are dense and tasty, but perhaps an acquired taste; my dinner pal found them a bit dry. Hummus with diced lamb is simple, the crisp lamb bits chewy to counter the soft hummus. We loved the mjadara, a toothsome mix of spiced rice, lentils and sautéed onions with a yogurt side that's definitely comfort food-and a popular Lenten dish in Lebanon. You might want to skip dessert here; the baklava was dry and uninteresting.
Prices range from $5.95 for most appetizers to $7.95 for hummus with toppings, entrées from $9.95 to $21.95 for mixed grill of various kebabs. There are pita sandwiches from $4.95 to $8.95, and $14.95 for that hookah smoke. 3890 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest. 619-325-1360.
Tucked a half a block off El Cajon Boulevard on a quiet residential street, the popular Mama's Bakery & Lebanese Deli features two unique things: a sajj (picture a large inverted wok) and made-while-you-watch cornmeal-specked flatbread (a mix of whole wheat and white flour) that cooks on the sajj. Here you eat on a small unadorned patio, or as many do, take-out. You order at the tiny counter, and your food is delivered from the window on the patio. The flatbread wraps include everything from fried eggplant to turkey and cheese. Baba ganoosh is heavy on tahini, so it's not my favorite. A spinach pie is the flatbread wrapped in a triangle with sautéed onions, spinach and ground sumac (a dark wine-colored, slightly sour flavored spice), and the makanek wrap melds spicy Lebanese sausage, pickles, hummus, tomato and lettuce in the flatbread-both filling and satisfying. Prices range from $3.49 for the pies to $4.99 for many of the wraps. There are also plates of meats, stuffed grape leaves and falafels from $7.49. 4237 Alabama St., San Diego. 619-688-0717.
The 30-year-old Phoenicia Cuisine & Bakery features what I would call good homemade Lebanese food from the Salame family. Mrs. Salame makes all of the food on the menu, including pita and French bread that are delivered locally by one of the Salame sons. Here, I felt like I was walking into someone's home-a TV here and there, a few tables (not set), an open kitchen, and much of the business is to-go. I loved her eggplant with meat and tomato sauce, and her tabbouleh has an elusive flavor that could be a hint of cinnamon or perhaps sumac; regardless, it is good. The baklava is melt-in-your-mouth with a scent of rose water for flavor, not overly sweet and worth the trip. 3381 Adams Ave., Normal Heights. 619-282-4120.
Ibis Food Mart in Mission Hills is a neighborhood market with homemade hummus laced with sesame seeds. I liked it and the garlic-laden tabbouleh. I found their baba ganoosh a thicker version with lots of tahini. The store also stocks ingredients for your own homemade Middle Eastern cuisine. 1112 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills. 619-298-5081.
A recent evening found three of us at Jack's La Jolla. Open since the first of the year with a lot of buzz (I've been there a few times), Jack's is a happening joint with many venues under one roof-some say too many. We chose the upstairs bar in The Dining Room for a bottle of champagne and three appetizers. Unfortunately, service lacks in many areas. In the downstairs Grille, an unaware bartender never acknowledged one in our party sitting at the bar for 10 minutes (he never got a drink). Upstairs, although our server was pleasant, she neglected to both present the wine and offer a taste, and table settings-plates and silver-arrived after the food. Our appetizers included a crispy tempura calamari, an unfortunately tasteless hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi with light olive oil, and five very good bite-size foie gras morsels on steamed baby bok choy with a reduced sauce of passion fruit and red wine. The prices of food and drink didn't match the level of expected service, at least not yet. Our bill was $123, not including tip. 7863 Girard Ave., La Jolla, 858-456-8111.