How many Middle Eastern restaurants can downtown support?
This was my query upon hearing the former site of Wild Wings 'n Things at 12. S. Tejon St. was turning into Arabica Cafe one more extension of the Falafel District that the Persian Grill, Heart of Jerusalem Cafe, Pita Pit and Mediterranean Cafe comprise.
Is falafel going to replace green chili as the food closest to capturing our local cultural identity? Are we really shoveling down this much shawarma?
Based solely on the fact that all of these businesses are still open, apparently so. Mideast is the new Wild West.
Yee-haw and inshallah (God willing).
Arabica Cafe claims to be unique with authentic Mideast-style shawarma: fresh, marinated skewers of meat rotated over an open flame, versus the processed, compacted meat cones typical of Greek gyros. (True, it's a niche, but don't be too leery of the word "processed" fine sausage, technically, is processed.) To their credit, our meat samplings over two visits were indeed moist and, save for the bland pulled-chicken sandwich ($5.95), well-seasoned. With hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, the beef shawarma ($5.95) in particular deserves a try.
One thing doesn't seem unique: the cafe's interior. Though the outfit wears fresh paint, the bland interior tables and booths still feel as though they've just been moved into someone else's shell. And in my first visit, with owner Kamel Elwazeir not present, the staff acted indifferent and failed to direct us. After paying, we were on our own. A simple point in the direction for plasticware would've been appreciated.
Our drinks arrived first: a Turkish coffee served in an ornate, wooden-handled, carved aluminum serving cup (from which customers pour their own espresso-like, strong shots) and a chai tea (both $1.95), which was so astringent and unsweet that I still wonder if I mistakenly received a regular tea.
Next came my friend's Tandoori chicken sandwich ($5.95) dressed in a decent garlic sauce and the lettuce, tomato, cucumber and pickle relish combo that complements most of Arabica's offerings. He enjoyed the sandwich, but had to remind the staff that he'd also ordered a side of hummus.
When it arrived, he found it as lackluster as that which adorned my veggie plate ($7.95). The hummus, which vastly improved on our second visit, tasted out of balance that day: not enough garlic, wrong ratio of tahini to lemon juice something. Otherwise, the baba ghanoush, tumeric-seasoned basmati rice, four dolmas and five small falafel discs were serviceable. But a side basket of tough, dry pita wedges helped remind that better spreads exist nearby.
Redemption came, however, in the following visit with the satisfying beef shawarma and a forgiving order of a hummus bowl topped in chicken ($5.95), served with properly soft pita. Delicious boiled turnips colored pink by a few beets paired well with the pickle and cucumber relish.
This visit, latte- and mango-flavored smoothies ($3.95) delivered ample sweetness, as did an enlivened, boss-managed staff. During an unusual slow period, one employee even sat with us briefly to describe their nightly marinating process, highlighted with spices direct from Lebanon.
If Arabica Cafe can pin consistency, both in product and service, it'll likely live to bolster the competitive Falafel District. Whether that's actually necessary depends on downtowners' supposedly insatiable appetite for Mideast cuisine.