The Dish: koshari

The Location: Cairo Café and Restaurant, 6244 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, (703) 750-3551.

The Price: $6.50

The Skinny: Fatma Nassef sits alone at a table in the far back of the Cairo Café and Restaurant in Alexandria. She’s staring at a large TV tucked into an even larger entertainment center dotted with miniature Egyptian statuary. Nassef pulls herself away from Egypt’s version of the Oscars to answer a few questions and suggest I try the koshari, a lentils-pasta-rice plate smothered in spicy tomato sauce. It’s a traditional dish found throughout Egyptian society, from homes to street vendors to restaurants. I’m hesitant to order it, though, because it sounds like the culinary equivalent of heavy starch on an Oxford shirt. The pale-yellow plate of rice, lentils, spaghetti strands, and elbow macaroni that Nassef sets before me doesn’t do much to change my mind, but two forkfuls into it and I’m sold. Much like a mixed-greens salad might play mint off basil off arugula, koshari allows you to savor the many different expressions of this broad food group: the earthiness of brown rice, the meatiness of lentils, the chewiness of elbow mac, the eggy-ness of both pastas. Even better, the whole mass is paired with a bowl of fiery tomato sauce swimming with red pepper flakes. You can adjust the heat levels by ladling on more sauce. Nassef suggests you go easy with the spoonings, and I concur—-unless, of course, you actually enjoy a bad case of the heat coughs.