Baklava for More
I've been a fan of Ya Hala since it opened more than a year ago. I liked it when it was still just an ugly, stained cement bunker with the (often inaccurate) hours painted on its back; when I would drive by and see bums sprawled in the little half-alley behind it; when the windows were nearly opaque with grime. I liked it before I ever set foot inside, because there was something about its location, its grimness, its stalwart solidity that spoke loudly of the sort of crazed indifference to common sense that infects so many restaurant owners. Considering the construction that twisted the Colorado Boulevard/I-25 interchange and snarled traffic right up to Ya Hala's front door, the slightly shady milieu that wraps that corner in particular and that stretch of Evans Avenue in general, and the oddity of an authentic, traditional Syrian restaurant suddenly appearing in a city that, for the most part, is barely able to tell the difference between Indian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines (let alone understand the subtleties that separate, say, the way Lebanese cooks employ chickpeas, lentils and yogurt, the way Israeli cooks use yogurt, chickpeas and lentils, and the way Syrians might utilize lentils, yogurt and chickpeas), the owners of Ya Hala seemed to be setting themselves up for a fall.
But other Middle Eastern joints have survived in the area, and I had to admire how Ya Hala held its own. And as it started a slow but steady program of refurbishment that included painting the exterior of the building in the colors of shifting desert sands, cleaning the windows and changing up some signage, my curiosity finally got me in the door.
I am part of that flummoxed mass that doesn't understand the subtle differences between Middle Eastern cuisines. I know little about Syrian food other than that it differs in influence and temper from the food of those countries that surround it -- and I'm not even entirely sure which countries surround it. But I do know a trick: When I sit down in a restaurant and see people who do not look like me -- who are not the twitchy, sullen, slightly goggle-eyed product of white liberal suburbia -- I recognize that I have come to a place that is doing something right.
I avoid restaurants that claim to serve Buffalo chicken wings and Irish stew, because I have had the real deal and know that there is nowhere in this city that does these things properly. And so I assume that Ya Hala is doing things correctly, because otherwise it would not be full of Middle Eastern families; tall, thin, dark-skinned men speaking languages I've never heard; women in flowing dresses and scarves; women in veils, obvious friends of owner Majid Khaski, who lean across the counter and speak in gruff tones through huge smiles. I take my cue from this and order wildly.
Meals here start with hummus, offered up free like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, just placed on the table like it was nothing. But this hummus could almost be a meal. It's served -- very coolly, in my opinion -- in a thick, round smear with four thumb-sized indentations each holding a puddle of olive oil. Run a bit of pita through it, and the oil lubricates what can often be a very drying condiment. Add to that a side-by-side dusting of Turkish sweet-hot paprika and powdered sumac -- its color running from mild, slightly sour gray to a vibrant and puckering purple -- and you have a dish of multi-layered complexity, redolent of lemon, garlic and sesame (almost like tahini), all riding the strong back of the humble chickpea.
An order of kibbeh akrass brings ground lamb, pine nuts and slivered onions, delicately spiced in a way that is not entirely unlike the mix in an Indian samosa, stuffed inside a shell of ground lamb, lamb fat and cracked wheat that's been fried in peanut oil. The beef shawarma isn't carved off a meat stick, like Greek and Turkish versions, but roughly ground from ribeyes, marinated in garlic and then served spicy as hell, either over fragrant, fluffed jasmine rice that mediates the spice somewhat, or as a pita sandwich with lettuce and tomato that does not mediate the spice at all. For the sambusk, ground beef and onion are rolled in pastry dusted with Italian flat-leaf parsley that, in its Italian-ness, makes sense of the garlic-shot mashed-potato "dip." The Syrian shrimp scampi also hints of the early explorers and traders who passed through Syria generations ago, leaving in their wake garlic, parsley, bell peppers and the notion of sauces not based exclusively on yogurt.
I quickly become addicted to the ballila, the simplest of simple dishes, just chickpeas floating in a somewhat ugly bath of absolutely delicious mild olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and cumin -- the elemental components of so many cuisines that they are to cooks like prime numbers are to mathematicians. I try kabobs -- chicken cut in chunks as big as my fist, spaced on the skewers by roasted tomatoes and green peppers, everything charred black on the outside and wonderfully juicy and tender within -- and kafta, which I've never really liked anywhere and don't like here, either. I can't even pronounce fouel maudamas, so I just point to it on the menu. It turns out to be cooked fava beans in a sort of cold stew, thickened with something hummus-like, topped with chopped herbs and strange powders, in a broth of lemon and garlic and oil.
Number 9 on the entree menu is described perfectly as "half chicken, grilled." The cook has taken a good chicken, split it rudely in twain while making sure to preserve the skin (the heavy thunk of the cleaver or saber going dead through the middle and slamming cleanly into the board below is one of the sweetest sounds in a working kitchen), dressed it with maybe a kiss of oil or butter and then introduced it to the grates of a very hot grill -- first on the bone side so that it cooked primarily from the inside out, then, briefly, on the meat side, ankle and rib points charring up black, the rest crisping from the grill's radiance and finishing tough at the skin, tender at the bone.
The chicken, like every other entree, comes over that excellent jasmine rice -- sweetened slightly with a brunoise of carrot -- with sides of pita and salad or the house soup. The soup is a riff on lentils, smashed here, with the legumes and some potatoes providing a starchy base for the chicken stock and giving the soup the texture of a thin potato chowder, its flavor brightened slightly by slivers of carrot and strange spices floating around in the murk. The salad is simply salad: chopped iceberg and tomato.
You can eat the chicken with a fork, but I just use my fingers, tearing into it with the appreciation due a thing cooked with no pretense and no ego.
I want to sit for hours at Ya Hala, eating more hummus, picking at another order of chicken, drinking the strong, cinnamon-scented Turkish coffee that's served in small, footed, filigreed cups set on gold saucers, watching the TVs in the dining room that are always tuned to an Arabic station -- which, if you're lucky and come at just the right time, could be airing the show with the Chinese guy dressed up in chef's whites and a ridiculously large muffin hat pretending to be French for the sake of doing vaguely European cooking demonstrations in front of a background that looks like a Jefferson Airplane stage show at the Fillmore circa 1969. As an excuse to stay longer, I would even eat salads -- which I rarely do -- because while the side salad here is dull, the vaguely Greek Ya Hala salad (with cucumber, feta and pickles) and the fettoush with garden vegetables in lemon juice and olive oil dressing are big, fresh and, above all, interesting. And then I would eat gyros and lebni, with its sour sting of dried mint leaves.
But I don't really need an excuse to sit around Ya Hala. That could happen even without my willing participation. The service in the dining room runs the gamut from friendly but poky to friendly but glacial, with the waitresses often spending more time hunched over a computer at the service station checking their e-mail than walking the floor.
I forgive them, though, because of the baklava. On innumerable occasions, I've tried to enjoy baklava and managed not to do so, always finding it too sweet or too sticky or too spiked with rosewater, too goopy or too stiff. Finally, I'd gotten to the point where I'd assumed baklava was just not to my taste -- like celery, roasted eggplant and pad thai -- and had simply stopped ordering it. But then I tasted Ya Hala's baklava.
My current record is eating eight double orders of baklava in five days -- two at a single sitting. And that was showing as much self-restraint as I am capable of. The minute I run out of this baklava, I start getting the flop-sweats. I get shaky and irritable. For the next several weeks or months (or until I find some new compulsion), I will be making repeated stops at Ya Hala for nothing but multiple orders of the baklava -- because I cannot now conceive of returning home without knowing that some is waiting for me on the counter, available at all hours of the day or night. Judging from the whip-quick way I became hooked on the stuff, the kitchen must be hiding heroin between the perfectly flaky layers of dough, juicing the honey with opium, something. Each slice is so beautiful: golden brown and bulgingly fat, composed of roughly a billion layers of pastry, each one micron thick and stuck together with honey made by God's own bees and studded with pieces of walnut. The result is -- impossibly -- crisp and soft and chewy and hard, all at the same time.
There is a biblical story that has Adam and Eve living on walnuts and honey in the Garden of Eden, with this notion of holy manna -- of food passed directly from heaven to man -- going on to inspire the first Middle Eastern bakers to create baklava. And if this story is true (and why not? A similar tale has Turks inventing the croissant, and I believe that one, too), I have just one question: If Eve already had this on hand, what the hell was she doing screwing around with snakes and apples?
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