Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Lebanon gets it on - Mama’s Bakery (San Diego)

Chef Luz called me up for a quiet lunch, so that meant Mama’s Bakery for the perfect, midday hideaway with its unassuming structure camouflaged by shaggy brush and a summer coat of green paint, hidden just a few doors down from Live Wire’s dive-bar antics.

Mama’s size helped protect her incognito, mosquito net of isolation. It was as if someone had started building a Craftsman cottage and decided to stop halfway through, leaving this postage stamp sized space that only read of the dining room's snug, dollhouse fit, a tiny kitchen and a few tables out front.

Maybe the builders went on a lunch break and never came back…I could understand why - more Lebanese, please! I wasn’t all that familiar with Lebanese food before our visit and even though Mama’s menu raised some questions, Mama didn’t raise no fools. Happy to educate about the cuisine, full descriptions were listed below each menu item and effortless explanations from the staff were recited like beloved bedtime stories.

The kitchen was rolled up as efficiently as their sandwiches. The Sajj (ancient oven dating back to BC used to cook flatbread) steamed like a fog machine’s special effects and revealed a smiling, middle-aged woman behind a glass counter ready to take our order. Leaning against the glass that separated us, I looked down to see the bottom shelf lined in baklawa (spelled differently than the Greek baklava, but basically the same) and other Lebanese pastries, which time-tripped me back to the candy counters of my Jersey youth, where each shelf had a value - the bottom one being the most precious (Fun-Dip for 50 cents was always the top prize) – I guess the same rules applied here…bottom shelf = top drawer.

But maybe my nostalgic mooning was brought on by the close quarters, similar to a relative’s kitchen, where you happened to stop by and they insisted you stay for lunch. The kafta sandwich was worthy of a schedule change. Countless, bite-sized meatballs of ground beef, onions and parsley fit into a clown-car of flatbread – it was like guessing at a jar of jelly beans. I couldn’t approximate how many meatballs were in there, but they kept coming like non-stop pitches at a batting cage.

Pickle crunched in a satisfying, “CRACK!” like a bat connecting with the ball. Hummus brought its creamy, tahini tang with a body bigger than the Babe and became more than just another condiment – this was a game changer.

But the homemade flatbread, hot off the Sajj, was the crowning achievement: crispy, browned outside; doughy, fluffy inside. For me, bread has always been the true test of a sandwich's sanctity and Mama’s bread breathed a mote of Mediterranean into the air - just enough to add a touch of foreign to the familiar - and linked its loving arm of Lebanon around me.

Things to try next time:
Drinks: Yogurt drinks? Chai cola? I’m in!…and extremely curious.
Food: Schawarma – similar to a gyro with shaved meat on flatbread;
hot pies; baba ghanouj; feta and olives

Things Mama raises:
1) No fools
2) The roof (the builders might have stopped halfway, but Mama didn’t)
3) San Diego’s sandwich standard (hummus is the new mayo!)

Mama also caters!!
Mama's Bakery
4237 Alabama St
San Diego, Ca 92104
(619) 688-0717