It had been while since I had a kebab, so I thought I'd head on down to El Cajon, home to the second largest Iraqi population in the US (next to Detroit). The mostly Chaldean Iraqi community has turned El Cajon's Main Street into a parade of Halal meat shops, markets, and kebab shops, providing a kind of ethnic vibrance, albiet a very laid back vibe, to the street. My initial thought was to hit my favorite spot, Village Grill. I gave my good friend JohnL a call, but he was tied up with work, so I headed down to El Cajon solo. While driving, I decided to check out someplace I hadn't been to. I drove past a restaurant I'd seen a few months earlier, but it had shut down, and was being replaced by "Nahrain Fish and Chicken Restaurant", which was not yet opened. Then I recalled a place I saw during one of our visits to Athena Market..... the shop was behind the market, away from the main drag. It is called Sagmani's Restaurant.
A few months back, I was talking to someone about all these Iraqi/Kebab Restaurants in El Cajon, and was taken aback when told, "I'd be afraid to go there..... I don't think I'd be welcome." I explained that my experiences, like what happened at Ali Baba were just the opposite of what she thought. Even though many of the men were fairly stoic, the women are warm and welcoming.... which turned out to be untrue based on this visit to Sagmani's. I was greeted by a jolly gentleman, who smiled and said "welcome....have you had kebob before?" I answered in the positive, and looked over the menu, which like many of these restaurants is compact, but deceivingly varied, with tekka, kebabs, stews, kubba(kibbeh), and even grilled quail and cornish hens. Looking over the menu, I just couldn't make up my mind....so the gentleman made it easy for me....."I'll make you one beef, and one chicken, and you can tell me which you like better.... how does that sound?" Well, it sounded just right to me.
The interior of Sagmani's is much smaller than it appears from the outside, only a couple of four tops, and two large, almost communal tables. But based on the table-tops laying against the corner, I'm guessing that they can accommodate a pretty sizable crowd if necessary.
I had a seat, and the very nice, but quiet young lady brought me some water, and asked me if I'd like to have some tea. And soon enough I was brought some.
Let's work around the protein first...... I really liked the "turshi" aka pickle, which was the pickled tumeric cabbage, which was really good, not too sour, and full of flavor. The salad was your basic plain lettuce dressed with a bit of olive oil and vinegar. The rice was moist, and had a nice savory flavor, almost like some kind of stock was used to make it.
On to the Kabobs.......
I really couldn't decided which I enjoyed more; the beef was fairly mellow, with just a touch of herbaceousness.... but man it was moist and tender. I could cut it easily with a fork. I loved that sumac was sprinkled liberally over the kabobs as that added even more flavor to them. On occasion, I've had a kabob that has what I call a "negative gamey flavor", which is that slightly off flavor of meat that is starting to head South..... this tasted clean. The chicken had more flavor, and did well with the char. It was also moist, but as with chicken, it was not as tender as the beef. It did have good flavor, though!
The only major item I didn't care for here was the bread.
I would like to mentioned the service, which I thought was wonderful. When the young lady saw me finish my water; she brought me an entire pitcher. I was checked on twice by the young lady, first to see if I wanted more bread; second to see if I wanted more tea. The gentleman came by to make sure I was enjoying my meal. I was surprised to find that I wasn't charged for my tea..... the entire meal came out to $7, the price of a sandwich in most of San Diego....... And from the various signs, they've got a slew of deals going on, from 99 cent kabobs to Monday and Tuesday lunch specials..... there's quite a bit of competition in the area.
So where do I place Sagmani's compared with the other Iraqi Kabob shops in the area? I still think the bread at Ali Baba is the best, followed by Hammurabi. For protein, my favorite with regards to flavor is Village Grill(and they make the best okra stew). Still the kabobs here were the most tender I've had to date, and I thought the rice was very good. And I'll go back, I'd like to chat with the really nice guy who made my kabobs.......
478 West Douglas St
El Cajon, CA 92020