Killer Kabobs

The vapors, the vapors. Oh, man. Me thinketh I shall swoon. Unlike Bill Clinton, I inhale deeply. Rose aromas? Cardamom? Honey? It sits steaming under my schnozz here at the granite-top counter as I wait for the vittles to turn up. The vapors rise from the curved glass cup like the genie from Aladdin’s lamp.

The nearest thing to being in the Middle East? This might be it. Women customers in robes and shawls, men with worry beads, Middle-Eastern music, hubble-bubble pipes, three giant vertical spits of beef, chicken, and a lamb-beef combo rotating in front of blue flames…what more could a hungry man ask for?

I found this enclave set up in the corner of Vine Ripe, a produce and grocery market that specializes in Middle-Eastern fare. Except no hubble-bubble. They’re just decoration, according to Mahmoud. This grill is his place. Has been for five years.

The building looks modern, with cream stucco, green canopies, bits of the wall painted purple, and bright red metal framing to the windows. The grill has this whole corner of the market, with its own outside chairs and tables.

A couple of women come in, one in a black ankle-length robe with elaborate purple scrolling, the other dressed in gray. Both wear head scarves. Wonder how Carla would look, dressed like that? My next thought is: What’s the big deal? Can’t we handle different styles in this town — women just, I guess, being modest? I scan the menu. Hmm. Bit much to take in in one. So I ask the girl for tea. Good move.

“Which kind?”

Lord, they have so many.

“Do you have a house tea?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” she says. And brings me this steaming curvaceous glass cup. So I sit and sip right next to a gent reading — huh — Music, a BBC magazine. I have my own serious reading to do and am thinking I might start with a spinach pie appetizer ($1.95) when I notice a guy at the other end of the L-shaped counter. He is laying sword after sword — and I mean real, three-foot swords, not wimpy kebab spits — in a cooler display case. Each is loaded with chunks of meat and onions.

Wow. That’s it. I’ve gotta have a kabob of some kind. Not exactly cheap, of course. A shrimp kabob is $9.95, beef is $8.95, chicken, $7.95, and cubed or ground salmon kabob is $8.95. Yes, they all come with basmati rice, hummus, a feta cheese salad, and pita bread. But then I discover at the end of the list that you can take “single skewers,” the kabob on its own with no sides. And the price is right, $4.95 for chicken or kafta (ground spiced beef balls) or $5.95 for lamb, beef, or salmon.

So, no contest: single skewer it is, and because the Middle-Eastern thing is always lamb, we’re talkin’ baa-becue.

I get to chatting with my friend with the Music magazine, Jaime. Trained in music at UNAM, the national university in Mexico City. Classical musician. Plays the French horn. He’s eating a kafta sandwich. Does all the time, he says. Oh, man. Crazy, but can’t resist. I order that, too, except I go for the chunks of beef carved off the juice-dripping spit ($4.95).

And guess what? It’s the sandwich that’s more delicious. It’s not just the slightly crispy pita bread. There is a sweetness, an exotic thing to the meat’s flavor, beyond the onions and the spiced beef.

“Cloves,” says Mahmoud, “and six other spices.” The sandwich does come with a little salad, and the lamb kabob has a couple of soft, half-moon pita breads.

Lord. So much food, so little time. Gotta chop-chop. Make that chomp-chomp.

Trouble is, conversations start sprouting everywhere. Jaime turns out to be a classical composer, too. He uses the Finale software to score entire orchestral compositions. The guy could be the Salieri of San Diego, fueled entirely by kafta sandwiches and baklava. Then I latch on to a couple of Somali guys at an outside table. They’re talking about the food. Nuur (“Light”) and Abdi. “It means ‘slave,’ ” Abdi says, laughing, “but ‘slave only of God.’ ”) He says that back in Africa, things are a bit sweeter. “Somalis like things to tip to the sweet side. Here in America, everything is saltier.”

I bite into my lamb kabob. Herby is the word I’d use. Dee-lish. Mahmoud, the Jordanian owner, says he gets customers from everywhere, including SDSU and Grossmont College. Maybe half come from Middle-Eastern backgrounds. Mahmoud says that the reason Muslim customers come is that the meat is halal.

Uh, halal?

“Halal means each animal is killed a certain way. Two neck veins are opened with a very sharp knife, so the animal bleeds to death. He doesn’t die of a heart attack, shock. And the meat is free of blood. Muslims believe animals shouldn’t suffer. And for each animal they kill, Muslims must ask permission from God.”

The meat’s also free range, with no hormones, Mahmoud says.

Armando the cook hands around a little sampler plate of the chicken kabob. Ooh, yes. Lemony, spicy. But Mahmoud says it’s the fish he sells most of. “Our grilled salmon is the most popular dish.” I see it’s $8.95, with sides. The sandwich goes for $6.95.

It’s kinda hard to leave. Chat’s good. A Turkish coffee ($1.45) would go down well. So would an hour or three contemplating life. I look out to Fletcher Parkway. Reality check. Crazy traffic. Guess I’d better jump aboard the Rat-Race Express.

Sigh. Maybe one more house tea. Catch those vapors rising from the curved glass cup. I wish…hey, maybe if I rub it…

The Place: Vine Ripe Market Grill, 8191 Fletcher Parkway, La Mesa, 619-462-9900

Type of Food: Middle Eastern

Prices: shrimp kabob, $10.95 (with basmati rice, hummus, feta salad, pita bread); beef kabob, $9.95, chicken, $8.95, salmon, $9.95; “single skewer” kabob (no sides), lamb, beef, or salmon, $5.95; chicken or kafta (ground spiced beef balls), $4.95; chicken shawerma salad, $8.95; spinach pie appetizer, $1.95; baba ghanouj (eggplant) appetizer, $4.95; falafel sandwich, $4.95; grilled tilapia, $9.95

Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., seven days

Buses: 854, 14

Nearest Bus Stop: Parkway Drive at Baltimore (walk south on Baltimore, left onto Fletcher Parkway)

Trolleys: Orange line, green line

Nearest Trolley Stop:Grossmont (about a half-mile walk)

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Wow I never knew they had a cafe in their!

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