Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Al Foron - The Cultural Magic of the Home - aka Great Arabic Food in SD!

From al foron

At the heart of every culture is a false sense of authenticity.

The notion of culture is such a shifting and amalgamated concept that cultural pronouncements often have a sense of antagonistic defensiveness about them.   My father is Xicano so you don’t understand me.  I believe that my God wears a yellow hat and if you don’t believe that too then I hate you.  I come from a long line of Ivy League New Englanders and very powerful people so I am too and I deserve to be.

And then defensiveness against defensive cultural statements often becomes childish and eventually racist and potentially destructive, often never instructive except to the speaker’s ignorance.   People who love Gods with yellow hats hate me so I hate them.

As a person growing up in a philosophically gringo American (USA) household I was often instructed/brainwashed/mercilessly forced to make or do whatever I wanted to with myself.  My great-grandfather came over from Ireland by himself, landed in NYC, and immediately changed his name and never told anyone ever about his past.  He was a fireman in the city for his career and this newly created cultural sense of self eventually created me. 

“Culture” often seems restricting to me, and yet there is definitely something alluringly comforting about it.   Who doesn’t want to be welcomed into a group?

I grew up around the world, because of my dad’s job, and as such often came into contact with the alien “other” on a daily and very personal basis.  Most of the time, however, the “culture” that was presented to me was of this variety:  “This is how we do it in my family, if you want, you can try it this way, and be like my family to me.”

This type of culture certainly allows for outsider influence.  It is never destructive to the outside either, but rather welcoming.  It is and can be often tantalizingly persuasive as well, but ultimately, usually both sides come out of the experience with a richer sense of the bigger picture that leaves room to stretch, as long as there is no political or religious or capitalist motive for the meeting to begin with (though sometimes these motives can also change because of the meeting).

Culture, however, is an artifice.  I’ve never met the official spokesperson for the USA/Xicano Rights/Catholic Church/Israeli Defense Forces/Egyptian Marxist Movement/Sufi Brotherhood/Enchilada Makers of the World/Womanhood/Oppressed Peoples/Crew Team/Earth Liberation Front/MBA Harvard Graduates before, so why do people think this one authentic person or thing exists? 

There is a special kind of culture that happens in a household, though, it seems.  It is like magic and secret, like a secret cult.  Sometimes it can be dysfunctional.  Sometimes it can lead to incredibly strong cohesion, and often, it is the place where the best food comes from.

The secret culture of the household is the producer for that authenticity that people seek when they go to the “authentic experience restaurant.”

It’s the mommywomb-yearning in us all.

It’s why Super Cocina is so good.  Your grandmother is waiting for you there, regardless of who you are (as long as you have seven bucks or so, maybe once with no money), and she’s kindly, and she’s been cooking those stews since 5 or 6am and for the past fifty years, and she learned her magic in the secret cult of her home.

It’s why Al Foron is so good.  It’s why it’s packed at 3pm on a Sunday.  A couple of people who know some really good “Lebanese” magic decided to open their home, and share it with whoever has $5.

From al foron

The owners seem to run it too, and it is their (and your) house.  It’s a concept many of my fellow country-people will quickly get nervous with, but one which I grew up with often in my friends’ houses.  The owners (if this good looking couple running around the small space frantically are the owners), are extremely welcoming, and both of them took the time to pause, ask you some personal questions about your life, and accommodate whatever weird thing you wanted, before running back to the kitchen to bring out the next batch of food for another table. 

What!  In that way that says “welcome home, it’s been too long since I last saw you,” the owners might also put their hand on your shoulder, not in a creepy way, but again, some USA types (and I only say this because I am one of you, or at least a semblance of one of you, and most of my family are you) might get forced to accept a closer personal space than they are used to having. 

But buck up Mr. red white and blue, there’s good food at the end of that tunnel.

From al foron

Al Foron’s specialty is their “flatbread” offerings.  They cook the bread in their own super hot oven and then cover it with a variety of delicious things that you can choose from.  In the Middle East these are usually called “beetza” (no “p” in Arabic and they sort of look like pizzas), but they do have traditional names, and the owners of Al Foron put these traditional names on the menus. 

I suppose it gives an authenticity to them.  I think calling them “pizzas” would confuse people in the States, even though everyone calls them that in the Middle East.  Or they often call it just “bread” really.  Bread with stuff on it.  Not too romantic either.

From al foron

We got the chicken taouk.  But listen.  This is not normal food.  This is not normal bread.  Don’t disregard it.  It looks simple.  Like a small pizza with some diced chicken on it.  It isn’t.  You notice it when you pick up a slice of the bread.  The softness of the bread is unreal and continues when you bite into it.  It’s like eating warm air that tastes like baking bread smells.  It’s serious business.

The chicken is also tasty, marinated and fresh tasting, much more than you expect by looking at the meat, which in most places wouldn’t taste like anything.  The marriage is made complete, however, by some homemade cucumber pickles and homemade Arabic garlic paste.

Now listen.  These aren’t your normal pickles.  They are homestyle Lebanese pickles, a kind of breed of pickle that those in the know have been keeping under wraps since the first Phoenician set sail to go sell some olive oil in Sicily.  These pickles are incredibly tasty and are just the right amount on the bread to add that certain salty vinegar that you never knew you needed so bad.

From al foron

The cherry on top, though, is the garlic paste.  Arabic garlic sauce has so many variations and consistencies.  I’ve had it in Syria where it was fairly subtle, tasting more like a slightly garlicky mayonnaise.  In the Emirates it is a nuclear assault of the most intense garlic concentrated paste that you will ever have the (good!) opportunity to experience.  Al Foron is somewhere in between with the added flavor of fresh and balance to it.  It gives you the garlic blast and the cool subtle oil both at once somehow.

Let me tell you:  bread, chicken, pickle and garlic all in the same bite = someone’s serious home-cult-culture-secret brew.   Please go and get one immediately.  If you waste your money somewhere else don’t say I didn’t tell you not to.

The other menu items we got were admittedly not as super-magical an experience but still some of the best homemade Lebanese food I’ve had in a very long time.

From al foron

My fatoush salad had the fresh ingredients like it should and the perfect amount of sumac sprinkled over every piece of it.  The pita shards on it were not crispy fried like they sometimes are on fatoush (like tortilla chips usually) but rather baked or warmed slightly which I actually liked better.  My only (minor) complaint was that the delicious and flavorful lemon based dressing was discovered pooling near the bottom of the bowl and not as much of it was on the top of the salad.  Maybe a side of dressing to put on top would have remedied it but the bowl was too full to mix up yourself.  The dressing and salad were really well done though.

From al foron

The tabouli was really nice as well.  All of these dishes are regionally different and tabouli is no exception.  Some places add more bulghar wheat to it than others, some have more lemon juice, some have more tomatoes, etc.  The tabouli at Al Foron as parsley heavy and light on the sauces and wateriness, which I actually liked.  It wasn’t as overly tasty as the other dishes though but it was great to eat fresh greens anyway!  Maybe it could have used a touch more dressing if I wanted to be picky.

Hummus is a staple throughout the Mediterranean and regionally different as well.  It’s also a matter of great cultural pride in the Levant and there have been recent cultural battles, between Israel and Lebanon in particular, over who gets the rights to claim hummus as their own.  Stupid people.

Hummus done well is fantastic, I don’t care if it’s Azeri or Chinese or Lesbian.

From al foron

If you make it the best, you get to claim the winning ticket, and my dollar, how’s that? 

The hummus at Al Foron is delicious.  Tahini hides well, though it's there, underneath the more dominant garbanzo and subtle garlic.  Their olive oil is from heaven and puddles on top, inviting you to choose to indulge or ration.  Their turnip pickles on the hummus are also a nice touch, some of the best Arabic pickles I’ve ever had, not too crunchy or watery or overly salty or weird tasting, perfection.  Perfect pickles.  Add that to delicious hummus on warm homemade bread and you’ve got your afternoon.

From al foron


The falafel sandwich was done really well as well.  Falafel is also one of those things that vary from restaurant to restaurant and from region to region.  The worst falafel I’ve ever had is in the USA from vegetarian places who don’t normally cook Arabic food.  Not sure why they even try, but they are usually way too bland, too big, undercooked or even baked (sick!).  A good falafel should be freshly scooped and fried nearby and eaten warm.  And fried well, crispy and crunchy on the outside and soft and light on the inside.  Yes deep fried.  Not healthy.  But I bet you don’t eat as many falafels as you do French fries so calm down.

Al Foron put a bunch of things in the “wrap” (please Al Foron, change the name to sandwich!  Wrap is an outdated word used by people trying to convince gringos to eat it.  Stick to sandweeesh, the authentic Arabic word!)  - the ingredients mixed well in the sandwich.  The falafel was a little bit too salty and dry though.  But frankly I ate the whole thing. 

Get to Al Foron, try everything, ask for advice, let them choose something for you, whatever, just go there, and welcome, ahlan wa sahlan, Al Foron to San Diego, thank you!

The place is cramped and small!  Very casual and hectic with lots of people talking loud and having a good time!  Get things yourself, walk to the kitchen to ask questions, do what you like, it’s your home!  Some Arabic music or videos would add to the ambiance (but not ‘classical’ more like Arabic dance hits from ART or something!).

Culture might be an artifice but Al Foron is the real deal.  Home food magic from the heart.

Closed Mondays, no Al Maza!  No alcohol!  Takes cards.

In a mini-mall off of El Cajon BLVD near SDSU.

5965 El Cajon BLVD
San Diego CA 92115
(619) 269-9904