Epicurious Eating: Fairouz Restaurant & Gallery
Feasting cheap on Middle Eastern cooking
Published Thursday, 17-Sep-2009 in issue 1134
While a friend waited for new treads at Discount Tires on Morena Boulevard, he wandered hungrily a few blocks down the street and discovered a buffet of “extraordinary size” comprising Greek and Middle Eastern foods for under $10. Not surprising, he couldn’t recall the name of the restaurant, which sits in the economically deprived Midway Village Plaza. The signage on the tower directory reveals only “Greek Buffet.” On the storefront window, a neon scribe reads: “Greek and Lebanese.”
My friend assured that I’d get no less mileage from this elongated spread of eastern Mediterranean fare than what new budget rubber will afford his vehicle. So with an equally intrigued companion onboard, he led us into what is also an art mart of paintings by Palestinian owner Al Nashashibi, a Jerusalem immigrant who runs the place with his brother and sister-in-law. At present, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Art” has more than 70 imaginative works hanging on the walls, adding colorful dominance to every speck of the restaurant’s split layout.
The food lineup at Fairouz Restaurant & Gallery is indeed fueling – a plethora of sustenance that includes lentil and lemon-chicken soups; pickled turnips; moussaka; lamb meatballs; baked chicken; beef and lamb gyros, obscure side dishes and uncommon desserts. The price for such midday indulgence is $8.99. At dinnertime the cost is $12.99, as the buffet ramps up with more labor-intensive dishes such as spinach pie, stuffed grape leaves and lamb shanks.
I cast the dissenting vote in our trio that quantity ruled over quality on this buffet. I’m probably in the minority against the general population as well, given that Fairouz has been in operation for 25 years while situated somewhat out of eyeshot from whizzing traffic – testimony that a devoted patronage exists.
Vegetarians, such as my friend who brought us here, will find plenty of hospitable options within this mishmash of culturally related dishes, which range from warm and homey to bland and boring. The big plus is that you can eat lawlessly and come away feeling light in the loafers since much of the cuisine is greaseless and based heavily in grains and vegetables.
Jerusalem-inspired shak shuka, for instance, is a comforting mix of tangy stewed tomatoes and eggs that I haven’t seen in San Diego restaurants, although it’s missing the whole poached yolks inherent to traditional Israeli versions. Here, the eggs are strewn throughout the juicy tomatoes. I kept a portion of it on every plate refill, allowing it to seep into less thrilling items such as vegetarian moussaka layered with eggplant, though void of nutmeg-spiced béchamel. Baked chicken thighs also benefited, as they lacked moisture and seasoning. Additionally, the name tag says the birds are “baked,” but the poultry revealed a dull, boiled taste.
Also dry but tasty were curly pre-shaved slices of beef and lamb gyros piled generously in their metal bin. Stuff a few pieces of the meat into the complimentary table pita, then add a smear of thick-as-butter garlic sauce from the buffet table, and you end up with a veritable Turkish-style gyro sandwich. I performed a similar maneuver with the lamb meatballs, but abandoned ship half way through due to the coarse grind of the meat and its odd dusty flavor.
My favorite dish was chicken in a gravy-like jus flavored with saffron. The moist chunks of thigh meat played well to the delicate, homey liquid, which demands that you load onto your plate a few halved potatoes that were baked to tender perfection.
Other cooked veggies include jumbo thick-skinned fava beans, served chilled with a touch of cumin. My cohorts gave their thumbs up to the okra, saying it dodged the common fate of sliminess. And my friend with the new tires raved over the combination of wilted kale greens and the house hot sauce, which I also didn’t get around to trying in the face of more than 30 buffet items.
He also pointed out as I went for seconds of the “spicy rice” that it was feistier compared to his first visit. It’s made simply with tomato paste, water and bits of jalapeno – a little goopy, but satisfying. Conversely, rice became the culprit in that day’s lemon-chicken soup, riddling it with starch after languishing in the broth too long. Ideally, the rice is added to this traditional Greek soup upon serving. In a buffet, it suffers. Lentil soup parked nearby was much better, given its clean, thin broth.
I didn’t find love in the pickled turnips either. Despite their beautiful fuchsia color achieved from initially boiling them with beets, the pickling brine lacked dimension, thus the rush of vinegar was devastating. Where there is novelty in this buffet, you encounter a bit of risk.
Consider the desserts a safe gamble. Good and nutritious was a medley of carrots, coconut and honey. At a glance, it looks like carrot salad, which prompted me to accidentally load it onto my plate as a first course. Among the other confections is an eggy version of baklava called namura, plus rice pudding that requires a fondness for rosewater.
My companions said they’ll continue returning here. For me, never a fan of buffets, I’ll maybe go back when my tires start demanding that I spend precious money on them.