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Like many Americans, I was introduced to both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine through the gyro. It proved a much easier sandwich to love than pronounce, and for years it represented all I knew of food from those regions. In high school, the gyro struck me like the first side of a Zeppelin record: I liked it so much I wasn’t even curious to explore further.
Thanks to a crush I had on a vegetarian woman, I eventually evolved into a falafel eater. The vegetarian was significantly less enamored of me than I was of the chickpea patties, and pretty soon a new world opened up. It wasn’t long before I was rating various restaurants’ hummus and baba ghannouj. Spinach pie and mousaka became near fixtures in my diet, as did cucumbers. The belief I carried from childhood that lamb must be eaten with mint jelly was erased.
In retrospect, it’s too bad there wasn’t an Egyptian restaurant like Pasha Cafe in my hometown; for that matter, it’s a shame there isn’t another like it in D.C. The Egyptian cuisine presented at Pasha is to Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food what Zep was to the blues: It’s everything you’ve come to expect and, well, more.
Appetizers take up three pages of Pasha’s menu. The pita bread is made fresh and served warm, to be enjoyed with an assortment of dips. Hummus and foul are served straight or as parts of larger culinary equations, as in the hummus bel foul, a hybrid of the two, or the vegetable hummus, which jazzes up the chickpeas with mint, cilantro, and what taste like several hundred other herbs. A sharp, tart cousin of those staples is the kosa bel zabadi, a bright green dip of pureed zucchini, yogurt, garlic, and sour cream. Connoisseurs of the condensed kick of briny delights should consider the betin jan makalil a masterwork; the baby eggplants are like pickles with a wild streak, marinated in vinegar, olive oil, hot pepper flakes, minced garlic, and parsley.
There are also two versions of mezza, selections of either 12 or 24 appetizers served with olives, and many customers will order one or the other and call it a meal. It’s not a bad way to go. There are plenty of starters that work as entrees, including the salmon fillets garnished with pine nuts and a golden raisin puree, and the fatier bel sabanigh, a fillo pastry stuffed with spinach, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and pomegranate. With a vegetable dish like the okra-based bamia or the steamed string bean concoction called fasoulia, any number of appetizer combinations can make for a great dinner.
Up until three years ago, Pasha’s owners ran an Italian restaurant called La Villa at this same location. (La Villa takeout is still available.) While the name has been changed and the sit-down menu has been fully revamped to feature the proprietors’ native cuisine, Pasha still suggests the homespun dignity of a spaghetti joint. The place is family-run, and you can tell. The dining room feels more like a living room, and the waiters are, if a little slow with water, quick to engage in fellowship with diners. Waiting for a table one night, a high-school teacher quizzes two waiters, brothers, about what they’ve been up to since they left her class. “You’ve grown up so handsome,” she says to one of them.
The vibe suits the food. Pasha’s Egyptian entrees are vibrantly garnished, many of them trimmed with pickled turnips (look like red peppers, taste like radishes), slivers of raw carrots, and baby tomatoes. But the meals are tenderly renderedhome-cooked comfort food done Cairo-style.
The lamb, chicken, and kafta kabobs are all char-broiled to a light crunch and served with Pasha’s delectable pasta-flecked rice.The swordfish is a lemon-drenched joy enlivened with a side of tahini. Lamb chops come deeply flavored with garlic and served with a medley of grilled vegetables. For a more uniquely Egyptian experience, try the moulkia, a spinachlike plant stewed in broth, mixed with coriander and garlic, and served with a choice of boiled lamb or grilled chicken. The menu bills the fetta bel lahma as “Napoleon’s favorite Egyptian dish,” and it’s appropriately grandiose: Tomato sauce and lamb cubes top bread toasted with decadent amounts of butter and garlic. Despite its starchy makeupgreen lentils, rice, and macaronithe koshari is remarkably light.
Pasha’s prices are reasonableentrees average around $11, starters about $3.50although it’s easy to lose control when ordering appetizers and wine. But by my last visit, I couldn’t help feeling that the menu was missing those simple and cheap sandwiches I’ve learned to enjoy eating while I drive. Thankfully, I discovered that the takeout counter in the back offers some other items, in particular the ones I’m looking forchicken and falafel pitas and, yes, gyros.
Pasha Cafe, 3815 Lee Highway, Arlington. (703) 528-2126.
In the past year, the restaurant on the southwest corner of Kalorama and 18th Streets, now called the Kalorama Cafe, has also made the jump from Italian to Middle Eastern cuisine, specifically Lebanese. Neither the culinary nor the structural renovations have attracted much business, which exacerbates the aquariumlike experience of eating alone in the now-enclosed porch that serves as the dining room. The waiters, perhaps not used to the activity, can seem frazzled trying to fulfill the simplest requests, but the chicken shawarma and kibbeh hold their own. The vegetables in the fattoush salad, however, are on the limp side, hardly worthy of inspiring a patriotic speech. Still, “this is what’s great about America,” my Jewish friend expounds. “A Jew can eat in a Lebanese restaurant and it’s no big deal.”
Kalorama Cafe, 2228 18th St. NW. (202) 667-1022.
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