Photo by Anne FishbeinFALAFEL IS OFTEN TASTIER. BABA GHANOUSH IS EASIER to get at Trader Joe's. Most Arabic-speaking people would rather have a kebab or three. But foul, the dried-fava stew variously transliterated as ful, f'ul or fool, is the basic unit of nutrition in great swaths of the Middle East, an addition to many bowls of Lebanese hummus, and the invariable communal breakfast across most of North Africa — the Egyptian equivalent of Cocoa Krispies. Foul has about everything you could ask for in a bean product: abundant protein, a clean, nutty flavor and almost no fat, though foul always tastes better when you douse it with strong, Lebanese olive oil. Plus, there is an enzyme or something in the fava bean that protects against malaria when ingested in the mass quantities that people in the Middle East's mosquito region tend to enjoy.
A few blocks from the churches and pistachio roasters of northern Pasadena's Armenian belt, Lebanese Kitchen occupies a former bakery in the middle of a small but significant used-media district, near sellers of first-edition mysteries, old jazz records and Catholic literature. There is an Armenian cheesemonger near here, as well as basturma makers and Beirut-trained bakers who have mastered the intracacies of ketaif and baklava. Middle Eastern delis in the area sell fresh za'atar bread, pomegranate molasses and vast drums of kalamata olives; tiny produce stores sell bales of parsley, wildly fragrant grapes, fresh favas. This area, one of the oldest Middle Eastern communities in the Southland, has hosted a constant stream of new immigrants for decades, but remains practically invisible next to the larger, flashier Armenian neighborhoods in Glendale and East Hollywood. And now, finally, northern Pasadena has a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant that can stand alongside mainstays like Carnival, Elena's and Caroussel, a small, cheerful place decorated with the usual travel posters, silk flowers on the tables, and a hulking, Pepsi-filled refrigerator that dominates the room. This is a vast improvement over last year's version of the restaurant, which resembled nothing so much as a generic fast-food restaurant that happened to serve very good kebabs.
“You would be surprised who my customers are,” says the owner, explaining a big menorah painted in the restaurant window last winter. “Draw a big cross on a piece of paper: that's Pasadena. Over here are African-Americans. Right below them, believe it or not, are mostly Jews, just crazy about this kind of cooking. Over here are what you think of as typical Americans — they mostly do not come here to eat my food. And only over here,” he says, indicating a broad swath of east Pasadena, “are the Armenians. Everybody comes to my restaurant.”
If you have eaten Middle Eastern food lately, you pretty much know what to expect from Lebanese Kitchen. Meals here tend to revolve around the kebab plates, charred, dripping skewers of grilled lamb or chicken served on huge beds of broth-simmered pilaf, garnished with finely slivered onion, a sprinkling of chopped parsely and sour, red sumac powder, and juicy tomatoes blackened with flame. The ourfa kebab, in which the chunks of meat alternate with slightly underdone rounds of grilled Japanese eggplant, is particularly tasty; the standard shish kebab sometimes has the livery aftertaste of hastily cooked meat. You may be disinclined to order the appetizers here. The cost of a kebab plate includes a small bowl of smooth, cool hummus and another of the parsley-bulgur salad tabbouleh.
Rice-stuffed grape leaves have been sour and a bit slimier than one might strictly prefer; the eggplant dip baba ghanoush is fairly bland. The plump grilled quail, kind of a bargain at $2.50 per bird, have little of the spicy, crisp gnawability of Marouch's version of the dish.
But the falafel is quite unusual here, crunchy, airy balls of fried chickpea batter that collapse into powder at the merest touch, a textural phenomenon closer to honeycomb candy (or Thai fried-fish salads) than to the dense balls you might be used to. This is sort of offputting at first but quickly becomes irresistible. And the foul is just astonishing here, enriched with pureed chickpeas, slightly lemony, slicked with good oil and more than a little cumin; sluiced with a thin, savory bean broth that manages to coax more flavor out of a dried bean than most chefs do out of a herd of cattle. Like great Cantonese rice porridge, this foul is the kind of salty, satisfying, protein-intensive dish that practically rockets you through the rest of the day.
1384 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 296-9010. Open Tues.Sun. for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Delivery. Lunch specials. Dinner for two, food only, $13$20. Recommended dishes: foul, falafel, ourfa kebab. AE, MC, V.