Banquet at the Oasis

Ali Baba Restaurant

421 E. Main Street, El Cajon

Okay. This time Ali Baba's going to happen. I swear. "Hank?" I'm at a pay phone again. "We're going, right? I'm climbing aboard the 815, dude, momentarily. Don't let me down. Don't steal this from me. Don't be one of the 40 thieves."

"My God. All right already. You got the hots for this place or what?"

Well, yes. I'm kinda panting. Last week, I got here too early for my Ali Baba breakfast. This week, we're meeting after work. Early dinner.

So now, whaddayaknow? Here he is. Pulling up in his Toyota. "Follow me," he says. He's been here before. He hops out and leads me 'round to the side door of the yellow and green and red building.

Inside, man...it's a world of drapes. Reds, yellows, whites, greens, alcoves, wispy little pavilions.... At the cash desk, Cindy, a short blonde girl with blue eyes who slips seamlessly from Arabic to English, tells us we can sit "anywhere." We cut through a doorway into a room flowing with drapes, veils, and, wow, royal-blue velvet hangings with, like, gold scrolling on them. And in the middle, a luxurious little tent, a kind of gazebo of greens and golds straight out of a medieval jousting tournament, or a sheikh's oasis encampment. We go inside and sit down at the table there.

"Thousand and One Nights, right?" says Hank.

I stare at the menu, listening to the burble of conversation -- in Arabic, of course -- and the clinks of spoons and forks. Groups nearby, men and women, share oval-shaped silver platters laden with food. The women are dressed in long robes. The drumbeat of an Arabic song sets the seal on the atmosphere. Love it.

Cindy arrives. "Any dish will fill you," she says when I ask. Some are a little up there. Lamb tekka (chunks of lamb charcoal-cooked on skewers) is $13, fried fish is $14, chicken kabob runs $12. So I check out lesser dishes like half a roasted chicken on rice ($7) and 'tweeners like the "potato chop," which is six pieces of "baked, crushed potato pie," stuffed with beef and then fried ($9.95), or the cool-sounding kobba musilia, a "crushed-wheat pie stuffed with beef and fried" ($11).

"I'll have the half-chicken," says Hank, with a practiced air, "and a Greek salad, small" ($4).

Hmm. Aside from the kabobs ($9.50--$15), they have dishes like lamb liver ($9.95), lamb heart ($9.95), or three quails ($12). Or, hey, rice and stew, $7.

"The stew would be filling enough?" I ask.

"Everything, everything is filling," Cindy says. "But, have what Chaldeans have, every day, just about. The kousi."

I do a rapid check. It's lamb shank "served with rice and your choice of stew, $12."

Does seem a little pricey, but...

I go for it.

Good call. The results of our choices are...oh man. I can't believe the spread. For starters, Cindy brings a "medium-sized" Greek salad. Read: way big. "The cook had started this anyway," she says. "I'll only charge for the small." Then she brings Hank a giant half-chicken on a bed of rice with more salad on the side, including pink pickled turnip slices, and then my large lamb shank on a bed of bulgur wheat, also with pickled turnips and lettuce and parsley. And then a bowl filled with margha, an okra stew in a tomatoey, garlicky sauce to put over my bulgur wheat, and finally, heavens to Betsy, two great breads, hot out of the tandoor, each as big and round as an elephant's foot. The table doesn't have an inch to spare.

The lamb shank is delicious, and so is the okra on the bulgur.

"You should bring a couple more friends and order the 'Feast for Three People,'" says this gent, Dean, who I'd seen sipping tea and reading what looked like a well-used copy of the Bible. Must be Chaldean. Christian. I see that the "feast" has about nine kabob skewers, shawarma meat, salad, rice, hummus...it must be that great oval platter the next table over. "It will feed six, no problem," says Dean.

It costs $36.95. Deal, if it feeds six.

Soon we're talking with his friend Othman Kalasho, who started this place. And soon Othman's taking us 'round seven panels on the wall that show how Ali Baba found the treasure of the 40 thieves (by saying "Open Sesame!" at a cave door). "Ali Baba was one of the tales the beautiful Scheherazade told King Shahryar to keep him from executing her," says Othman. "She talked for 1001 nights."

"What about this decor?" I ask him. "Why go to so much trouble?"

"The whole place is decorated to be like the tent of the King of Arabia. Middle-Eastern people like to sit in a tent. It makes you more relaxed. We are sentimental about it. It's more sympathetic than four hard walls."

Wow. How wonderful. Guess it's like us hankering (sorry, Hank) for the Wild West. Saloons, horses, wide-open spaces. Lonesome Dove. Othman says it harks back to the past of a desert people, when you could pull up stakes and just go, whenever you wanted. No one telling you what to do, except for that stern mother, Nature.

I finish off with a little cup of way-strong, sweet Arabic coffee ($1). So good with sweets.

On the way out, I notice a sign in Arabic. "What's that?" I ask Othman's son Ronny.

"That says we'll cook a whole lamb for you, with rice and shawarma and noodles and raisins, for $200. Enough to feed 30."

"Now that," I say to Hank, "would be style. Let's throw a party for 30 of our best friends."

"You have 30 friends?"

"When they hear we have a whole roasted lamb, I will."

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