A couple of weeks before our visit to Village Grill, the Missus and I took a drive down Main Street in El Cajon, just to take a look around. Not quite sure where to stop, we saw a packed parking lot.....and decided this was where we'd be stopping. It turned out to be the very colorful Ali Baba Restaurant, which Cathy had done a post on earlier.
As Cathy noted, the interior is quite "Arabian Night-ish"...... in a somewhat kitcshy kind of way.
We made two visits over the next couple of weeks, and what follows is a summary of the dishes we tried.
The Baba Ganouj had a wonderful smokey eggplant flavor, that went so very well with our favorite item at Ali Baba..... which would be the flat bread called "Khubz". On our visits we were served two hot large dinner plate sized bread to start.
The Jajeek (small - $5), the Iraqi version of the refreshing yogurt and cucumber dish that many folks know as Tzatiziki, was good.
Of all the Entrees we tried, I'd say the Shawarma (Gus - $10.95) was the best.
The beef was nice and chewy, but was much drier than the version at Village Grill. It was also a bit short on salt, I ended up adjusting the flavor with a good amount of sumac. The rice was also quite bland. It was quite a bit of food, as the Missus and I shared this, and we still had leftovers.... of course we had two pieces of bread.....
I did enjoy the "Turshi", the variety of pickles and other "mezze". The pickled turnips were good and sour.
On one visit, the Missus ordered the Kousi, braised lamb shank and rice ($13):
The dish came with a stew of choice, and the Missus went with Her usual, the Okra Stew they call Bamia. Man this was quite a hefty meal. This version of Okra Stew was fairly mild and didn't have any meat in it. The lamb shank was cooked to perfection, but was a bit underflavored for our tastes. I love the version of the Okra Stew at Village Grill which is full of whole cloves of stewed garlic.
I think the item we enjoyed the least at Ali Baba is the Lamb Tekka ($13):
The first thing I'll note is how difficult it is to take photos of food on reflective metallic plates...... The chunks of marinated and grilled lamb was badly in need to of salt. It was also tough and dry, not my favorite combination in the world.
From this post, you might get the idea that we won't be going back to Ali Baba anytime soon, but that would not be accurate. We will probably stick to maybe the Baba Ganouj, a salad, or maybe the Potato Chop or perhaps a sandwich. And of course that bread........ Which of course would be part of the reason we'll be back. But there's another reason. The service is not the fastest, and the men working there are on the indifferent side, but there's one woman who works there who is wonderful. She has a very warm, kind, and welcoming personality; every child get's a warm smile and a pat on the head. She always seemed pleasantly surprised that we finished all of our bread, and asked if we wanted more on both of our visits. We were even asked if we wanted more bread with our doggie bags. And even though we wanted to say "yes", we really didn't want to impose. And we especially didn't want to seem like gluttons. On our second visit, as we were grabbing our leftovers, the Missus asked if they made their bread fresh since it was always hot when it reached the table. The woman smiled warmly and beckoned us to "come and follow me, I'll show you". And we got a quick tour of the kitchen! We were led to the back of the kitchen where the fresh bread was made.
We watched as another woman, who smiled at us strangers in her baking area like it happened all the time, cut and rolled out the dough, which was then placed in a oven that looked much like a tandoor.
A few moments later a hot flatbread was brought out of the oven. Our guide, that wonderful lady, then grabbed the bread and popped it into a white paper sack and handed it to me and said, "ok, now this one is for you to take home" as she walked us to the back door. As we left she said "see you soon", and I think she will....see us soon...... And we'll do a post of course.
In a nutshell, it is probably the most accessible Iraqi Restaurant in the area. The prices are reasonable and the portions are very generous. The lunch crowds are, well, crowds. It is perhaps better to go for an early or late lunch. Limited parking in the small parking lot, but there's ample street parking.
Ali Baba Restaurant
421 East Main Street
El Cajon, CA 92020