Beirut Time

Mediterranean Café and Lounge

1352 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Uh-oh. Khaled has placed three red-hot, burning charcoals on the top of my sheesha. Khaled doesn't speak English. He gestures to me: "Just put your lips together and suck."

Oh, wow. Light contrail of smoke blows out. It tastes of...roses. Khaled sighs with relief and heads off with his brazier to other hubble-bubble users.

Half an hour ago I wandered through these curtains, kinda moon-eyed in the gloom, and found myself in a little hall with a definite Middle Eastern feel. Maybe three dozen what they call sheeshas -- or hookahs, or hey, water pipes -- stood along high shelves, below a couple of curved scimitars. Wow. Also lots of decorated brass trays, Aladdin-style coffee pots with long pouring spouts, and Victorian-era drawings of scenes from traditional Middle Eastern life. Green and red lanterns hung around the walls. Mostly men, mostly Middle Eastern, sat talking in groups, or alone smoking sheeshas. A couple of guys played backgammon with loud clacks. And thumping in the background, Middle Eastern music on the sound system. A woman with a strong voice. Everybody sang along with her.

"Um Kal Thom," said the guy behind the counter. "She was Egypt's greatest singer, and she's been dead maybe 20 years. This is her hit 'The Days Roll By.'"

I asked for a coffee. Standard American was $2. Turkish was $3. No contesto. I went for Turkish, sweet. Love that thick-grind thing.

"Can I eat?"

"Of course." The guy handed me a menu packed with Lebanese specialties. I keep forgetting how healthy this eastern Mediterranean way of eating is. Tabouli, "the original Lebanese salad," as the menu called it, has chopped parsley, tomato, mint, onions, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, and olive oil. That's it. So good for you. So's the price, $5.95. What the Greeks call dolmides is warak inab here. "Vegetarian style" grape leaves stuffed with rice, onion, olive oil, spices. Also $5.95. Falafel, which many think of as Lebanese, 'specially the Lebanese, are those deep-fried spicy patties made from garbanzo and fava beans ($5.95).

While I was umming and aahing, this guy Ray said he always has the grilled chicken salad. He was here with his grown-up daughter Laura and their very grown-up St. Bernard dog Bailey. "The chicken salad's great because it has less grease and no rice," he said. The menu says it's "boneless, skinless mesquite-grilled chicken kabob served with fatoush salad -- a mix of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion, parsley, mint, sumac, and bits of pita bread." Priced at $8.95.

They have a bunch of specialty platters too, mostly chicken, lamb, or beef kebob dishes. Those get up around $14--$16. Two skewers each, but you can get one-skewer versions for $5.95. I decided on the lahem mishwi, "a skewer of cubed tender lamb, marinated in our specialty sauce, served on a roll of pita bread with hummus, tomato, lettuce, and pickles" -- even though someone said I should try the meat pie on pita ($4.95), because it's so different from traditional American meat pies.

But lamb sounded good to me. As I sat down, I came across Kal Kayed, who was chatting with a guy at the next table. Turns out he opened the place six years ago, wanted to create a social center for fellow Lebanese and others from the area. "Lebanese are very social people," he said. "We like to eat late and talk long, and we don't eat just to fill up. We may spend an hour on appetizers, another hour on the main course. We enjoy getting together."

Turns out Kal was an airline pilot when he started this. I couldn't help asking him if 9/11 caused him problems.

"Not at all," he said. "I quit flying two years ago, but that was just so I could concentrate on this and the Medgrill, my other place up in Hillcrest. But I'll go back to flying soon, because I love it."

I soon realized that in Med Café time, I was ridiculously early. It was only eight, and the DJ didn't come on till ten, and people can eat here anytime up to three in the morning. So downtown has a reasonably priced place where you can eat at all hours. Who knew? "We get a lot of people after the nightclubs and lounges and bars close," Kal said, "but it's a culturally open-minded crowd. Lots of students, Spanish, Italians, Germans, and other Middle Easterners."

My lamb was tasty, with its hummus and pickles. But what's the difference between Lebanese and other foods? "The Lebanese way is marination," Kal said. "We're different than, say, Persian foods. We use different spices, and we aim for flavor, not heat."

'Course now I have to try the hookah. Partly because it's such a deal. Other places around downtown you pay $15, $18 for an hour. Here, it's $5. I hand over a Lincoln, plus two Washingtons for a straight coffee, and that's when Khaled brought over the whole contraption. He went back for his hot coals. Khaled is from Tunisia, but he's red-haired and blue-eyed. "I am Berber," he says in French -- I can do just enough français to catch his drift. "We're from the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. The Tuareg are Berber."

This is pretty amazing. Khaled, the Sahara, my sheesha, Kal, lamb -- everything right here on Fifth.

'Course just as I'm leaving the place starts to warm up. The DJ arrives. Music switches to a giant screen. People like Georges Wassof, "the Michael Jackson of Beirut," says Kal, get to singing East-West fusion songs. Translations scroll across the bottom.

"Our whole life is ahead of us," sings a voluptuous gal. "Why waste it?"

Good point. To heck with timetables. Way this sheesha's going I'm good for another hour. Bubble bubble. The charcoal glows.

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