Sunday night. East Main. El Cajon. Warm, balmy, a relief from another El Cajon day. Families, older men (Chaldean, mostly) sit around in clumps on the boulevard’s benches and in Prescott Promenade Park, talking, playing chess, drafts, cards, laughing quietly. This is what East Main’s supposed to be used for. It’s nice.
Most eateries, though, are closed. So I cross East Main and drop into Big Bear Produce to get a stash of their dee-lish pistachio baklava, plus Spanish Mix olives. And to find out where a starving traveler could tank up on this end of a Sunday evening. I mean, these guys have a full deli back there but no chairs and tables.
“Go to Al Azayem,” says the check-out girl. “It’s new, and I think it’s the best Chaldean.”
550 E. Main Street, El Cajon
So, yeah. One block up and thar she blows. Al Azayem, the only light shining out onto the silent street.
Of course, first, I’m tempted not to go in. Because, for $1.25, you can get a beef shish kebab; and for 99 cents, you can get a chicken shish kebab. But only to go.
Except I look through the window. That place is buzzin’. Go in its door and you’re in a little piece of Baghdad, I swear. TV’s showing cartoons in Arabic. Cooks, stoves, big pots, and on the other side, tables filled with people eating and yakkin’ away, also mostly in Arabic, or maybe Aramaic. A little statue of Jesus stands on top of a shelf on one wall.
Up front, one long table has a whole bunch of Anglos sharing big colorful shish kebab and rice and salad dishes. Talking a combo of English and struggling Arabic. Must be students learning Arabic. Field trip.
Here, near the back where I sit down, the walls are cream, floor tiles white, tables are dark wood and chairs are black. Plain, but clean.
So, what to have? I check around. A lot of shish kebabs, shocking-yellow basmati rice, and big lamb shanks that sit in a swirl of soaked bready stuff in a tomato-based sauce. That bone looks real delicious to gnaw on.
Gal who’s been manning the cash register comes over. She wears a blue tee and black baseball cap. Is Chaldean. Name’s Windy.
“What’s that?” I ask her. I’m pointing at one of those shank plates.
“That is lamb-shank tshreeb, like stew. It is very Iraqi. Comfort food. We soak very thin flatbread in a tomato sauce base with vegetables and dried lemon and make a stew. It’s one of our most popular. That and the one-person combo.”
Turns out that one-person combo includes a chicken tikka (a kind of spiced, yogurt, tandoori-baked boneless chicken), plus two beef kebabs and one chicken kebab. Costs $7.99, same price as the lamb-shank tshreeb. Actually, everything is in the same ballpark, costwise. A large plate of fried kabbah (meat stuffed with grits) is one of the most expensive at $9.99, a kebab with rice is $6.99, and half chicken with rice and sauces is $7.99. Of course, if you want to bring two dozen of your closest friends, you can go for the $225 combo dish that includes lamb shank and a whole, entire spit-roasted lamb. And salad and pickles. Or if you don’t have $225, you could order biryani (mixed rice with meat or veggies) for $3.99.
Me? I think I’ll come to this by stages. I ask for a pot of black tea ($1.50) and then hummus, with one of their horn-ended breads ($3.99). And, okay, a falafel sandwich, too ($2.99).
First, a surprise. You get a creamy soup free with food. It’s a nice floury gloopfest that gets your juices running. Then comes the hummus, a great swirl of olive-oily garbanzo-bean creaminess that I scoop up with rips off the horned bread. That’s a deal, but now comes an incredible bargain: the falafel sandwich. Another great chunk of bread stuffed with at least four mini-loaves of compressed chickpeas peeping out from within, surrounded by shreds of lettuce and other salad greens. I’m getting a nutty cumin and garlic taste and it goes good with yogurt. But for $2.99?
“I thought Arabic for ‘no’ was ‘nayam,’” says one gal. “No, ‘la,’” says one of the students. They’re from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Learning to speak Arabic. Popped in here by chance.
Ah. Here is my lamb shank. Oh, my giddy aunt. No way I’ll conquer this thing. For starters, under the giant drumstick, there’s all this drowned bready stuff.
“The number-one dish in Iraq,” says Windy. “It started off as the poor man’s food, but everybody eats it. It’s almost a national dish. You can use beef or lamb.”
I get into it mostly with my fingers. These great thin panes of bread come up dripping and slightly spicy. The lamb meat falls off the bone. And yellow pickled cauliflower and lime stand by to make it more tart if you want.
I get talking with one of the scholars here. Turns out Iraqi cuisine is maybe the world’s oldest. Records of recipes go back thousands of years. And stew has always been at its heart.
I stumble out of there so bloated I feel kinda drunk. I have spent $17.95 and I’m taking half of it home.
“Oh. So, what does ‘Al Azayem’ mean?” I ask one of the students outside.
“That’s easy,” she says. “It means ‘The Gathering.’”
On this Sunday night, on this deserted street, I’d say it’s the only gathering in town.
The Place: Al Azayem, 550 East Main Street, El Cajon, 619-588-5374
Prices: Breakfast lentil soup, $2.99; shawarma (gyro) with eggs, $6.99; hummus appetizer, $5.99; biryani dish, $3.99; lamb shank tshreeb (stew with bread in tomato-based sauce), $7.99; chicken tikka with rice, $7.99; beef kebab sandwich, $3.99; fried kabbah (meat stuffed with grits) plate, $9.99; combination dish (with a whole roasted lamb), $225; falafel sandwich, $2.99
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily (breakfast till 1:00 p.m.)
Buses: 815, 816, 871, 872
Nearest bus stops: East Main and Taft (815, 816 eastbound), or East Main and Ballantyne (815, 816 westbound, 871, 872)