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So Far, So Good

Pipe dream: Hookah Cafe offers a taste of the real Lebanon.
Mark Manger

When Jeremiah Tower (Mr. California Cuisine, chef at Stars and Chez Panisse, and author of the foodie confessional California Dish) was a young man, he ate everywhere. He traveled around the world -- usually in style -- and consumed. James Villas, food editor at Town and Country for something like 26 years, grew up in the States but left for France in his twenties on a Fulbright scholarship and, before his first day of classes, became an accidental friend of the house at La Côte d'Or. After that, he spent much of his life in the dining rooms of the Queen Elizabeth feasting on caviar and flutes of French champagne. In her teen years, Gina Mallet knocked around the grand hotels of France. During his boyhood summers, Anthony Bourdain haunted the dunes at Cap Ferrat and ate in the restaurants there. Calvin Trillin never met a travel agent he didn't like.

Me? I've never been anywhere. And I'm jealous as hell.

One of my nightmares goes something like this: In the not-too-distant future, my wife and I are sitting at a good restaurant in New York City -- Restaurant Daniel, say, or Ducasse or Babbo -- having a great time. Then who should wander in but Bourdain, who pulls up a chair, and now it's a great time squared. Ruth Reichl arrives next, then Villas, then Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten. Soon it's a big, rollicking party of food writers, and while this would be a dreadful collision of ego and neediness in the real world, since this is a dream, we're all getting along swimmingly.

The talk turns to best meals, and everyone is remembering some little place in Lyon, in Paris, in Genoa. Villas won't shut up about Bernard Loiseau and La Côte d'Or, and Bourdain is talking about eating ribs on the beach in St. Martin. Even Laura gets in on it, telling her story about living on frites and rosti while motoring in the Alps with her family, because all the damn Swiss ever ate were farmer's cheeses that she couldn't stand.

Then it's my turn -- and I've got nothing. I don't know the name of the maître'd at La Tour D'Argent, what street in Rome has the best pizzerias, or the going price of chutoro in the sushi bars outside Tsukiji. I've been to Canada -- but that's about as interesting as spending the weekend at your Mormon neighbor's house. And while I've spent some time in Mexico, to the food-obsessed, Mexico is only interesting as a foil for some other, greater adventure: "Now, after coming home from Gstaad, we immediately flew down to Ensenada to get some sun, and there was this little taqueria there..."

In this nightmare, I'm left desperately touting American restaurants because American restaurants are what I know (probably as well as anyone assembled) and, in particular, restaurants in the American Southwest (which I certainly know better), but every argument sounds hollow, even to me. My dining experience -- especially in regard to ethnic cuisines -- has always been at one remove or more, has always been like listening to a first-generation recording of "The White Album," never the original master. When it comes right down to it, I don't know shit -- a fact made excruciatingly clear every time I have this dream.

It's usually at this point that I wake up in a cold sweat, irrationally pissed off at my food-world contemporaries for being such a bunch of jerks and at myself for never having taken the time (and never having had the scratch) to travel appropriately. While these schmoos (Bourdain excepted) were kicking it on the continent, I was head-down over a ten-top stove with some drunk, furious, first-generation Alsatian chef with no neck and a butcher's saber in his hand telling me how I was never going to amount to anything because I couldn't make a proper quenelle. Or I was drunk myself at some hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern cafe in New York, eating hummus and shawarma carved fresh off the rotating meat stick by a dark-skinned ESL line cook with hairy wrists, surrounded by locals and sitting with my crew, all of us bitching about how -- if only we had the time and money -- we'd hop the first jumbo headed east and eat our way through Paris.

Most of us never did. The furthest we got was the next job, the next station. But now, looking back, I can't say that we didn't go anywhere. We might not have crossed many borders physically, but all of us traveled by eating.

And I'm still doing that today -- searching out, almost by reflex, those places that most fully transport me from wherever I am to wherever the owners and cooks have come from. In this way, I've been everywhere; I've become a frequent flyer. And while eating at the Hookah Cafe on Downing Street in Denver might not be the same as crawling the streets of Beirut looking for a fast hit of falafel, it's not that far off, either.

 

At a small table outside the front door, a youngish man in a dark suit and sunglasses is hitting the hookah beside him. Two small bricks of tobacco sit smoldering in the top of the thing, the smell both sweetly fragrant -- like cedar and cherry and hot tar -- and undeniably alien. He nods as I walk past, and as I step inside, the hookah smell mixes with the scent of garlic and roasting lamb, goes tripping across the senses to mingle with the sound of Middle Eastern pop music coming from a little tape player/radio on one of the tables, with men speaking in a broken mishmash of Arabic and English about their jobs, their cars, their laptop computers -- brand names and curses poking out like barbs from the background hum of foreign conversation.

The place is comfortable, casual, eclectic -- which is just a polite way of saying the chairs and tables don't match -- with plastic sheeting covering the tablecloths and minimal decor made up of Lebanese flags, sponge-painted ceiling and hookahs displayed next to the kitchen. But that's fine, because the music, the smells (every time the door opens, the air gets a fresh infusion of that wonderful pipe smoke), the buttery sunshine streaming in through the windows and the other customers provide a better sense of place than any travel-agency posters of the sunny shores of Lebanon. Hookah Cafe is an eatery the community actually comes to -- not a theme restaurant, not an Epcot Center vision of what a Lebanese restaurant might be, but the real thing.

More accurately, it's a real one-off, a real ethnic-American neighborhood joint in a solidly Starbucks neighborhood. Because I've never been to Lebanon, I don't know for sure how well Hookah Cafe pulls off its translation, but I do know how it makes me feel -- and that is far away. I know how it stands up against the other hummus-and-falafel joints I've visited in my day (and I've visited plenty). I know that odds are good I'll be getting a true taste of Lebanese cuisine without having to go to the expense of a plane ticket, the trouble of getting a visa, the pain of possibly being shot.

Service here is friendly but casual. I have to find my own seat (plenty are available, even though the house boasts only about ten four-tops), my own menu (a single-sheet photocopy), and then wait until someone in the kitchen notices me sitting here. My server-slash-cook smiles when he comes over, then runs off to find a pen and a ticket book, then returns, still smiling, and starts right in telling me what's good, what's not so good, and what's gone.

"The lamb, the goat," he says. "We get in fresh yesterday." But he hasn't yet turned these into the kibbi (balls of ground beef, lamb and goat, stuffed with diced onions and pine nuts, then marinated in powerful spices and fried in vegetable oil) or the little Lebanese meat pies I've tried on previous visits and want, badly, again. "It's Monday," he says, then shrugs, smiles again. "It's not much of an excuse, but, you know. It's Monday."

"Lamb kebabs?" I ask, continuing the negotiation.

"Yes. Very good. Lamb kebab. What about shish tawouk?"

He points to the menu, and I look, nod. That sounds good, and maybe some kafta with vegetable kebabs as well. And a fruit salad, marinated in honey.

"Good, good," he says. "Fifteen minutes?"

Knowing the wait will be at least twice that, I tell him it's fine and settle in. Nothing here happens quickly, but I don't come here when I'm in a rush. I come here when I have nowhere more important to be.

The kitchen in the back is open -- not a showplace staffed with a bunch of flawless white jackets, but a working short-order galley with a short plywood wall separating it from the dining room. I can see shanks of yesterday's lamb delivery charring on the grill, teapots waiting to be scrubbed, trays of limes and stacks of plastic to-go containers, columns of smoke that rise every time the cook throws another raft of kebabs on the fire. I roll a glass of lemonade (homemade, powerfully bittersweet, poured with no ice) between my palms and watch as my server/cook riffles through a black metal filing cabinet jammed into one corner of the galley where he keeps his spices, his kebab skewers. Every fifteen minutes or so, the tape of twangy, ululating Middle Eastern pop music ends, and the radio kicks in with a jarring hit of Tejano accordions or ads for musica loca until a customer gets up, flips through the cassettes on the table and slides in a new one. This happens twice while I wait, a third time while I eat.

 

The shish tawouk was an excellent suggestion -- huge chunks of white breast meat, rubbed with garlic paste, scarred on the grill, still steaming on the skewer, like Middle Eastern McNuggets. The lamb, deeply flavored with garlic, salt and clove, had gone straight from the marinade to the grill; I pull off chunks of the tender meat with pieces torn from the stack of flatbread in front of me, then scoop up a little basmati rice. As a plate dinner, the lamb comes served over a salad with parsley, diced onions, sometimes sumac, with yogurt sauce and maybe some lemon juice on the side. But I prefer it naked like this, pulled right off the stick, devoured with nothing more than rice to accompany it.

The kafta -- patties of ground beef and lamb -- are a little burned and brutally heavy on the clove, so much so that my tongue goes numb. But they come with skewers of huge, bloody-red roasted tomato quarters that taste like fire and sunshine, and huge whacks of roasted white onion that I pull off with my fingers and fold in with the rest of my meal. To clear my palate, I fork up big pieces of apple and golden pineapple soaking in honey and dotted with cream, and sip at my finger-smudged glass of lemonade.

After I finish eating, I have the leftovers wrapped to go and sit a minute, not yet ready to leave. True, I've never been anywhere. I've never been to Paris. I've never gotten drunk in Catalonia and had to be carried home from the tapas bar. I've never slouched through the cafes of Beirut, drinking thimbles full of deadly black coffee and devouring my weight in tabouleh. Someday I'll do all of that. But for now, I've already eaten my way around the world more times than I can count. Until I have the time and the means to do things right, this is the way I will travel, and I feel fortunate that I've lived in places where such trips are possible. All nightmares of foodie inadequacy aside, I've been places -- and I have no trouble telling the good ethnic translations from the bad.

Hookah Cafe is one of the good ones. I know this because when I finally get up and step outside -- carrying my bag of take-away Lebanon, still wreathed in the smells of cumin and garlic and sweet tobacco smoke -- the world is a slightly different place. Fuller, somehow. Denver isn't Lebanon, Downing Street isn't Beirut, but this spot makes those distant places seem that much closer. And I feel fortunate that I don't have to go far to get my taste of the far-away.


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