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.