Mondo Mediterranean Meals
You can enter a self-identified Mediterranean restaurant for the first time, not even look at the menu, and rattle off the offerings: an overemphasis on Greek food, with Middle Eastern meat dishes, soggy pita sandwiches, overfried falafels and enough bad salads to turn you against roughage forever. We need more restaurants like Kerostena Grill, marooned in Garden Grove, far from the comfort of Little Arabia, a place that easily, successfully skips through the many traditions of the Levant. Enjoy Hellenic eats? Start with moussaka, the famous Greek eggplant casserole, creamy and a tad tart thanks to a generous helping of tomato sauce. Or you can opt for the spanakopita, a sextet of triangles, created with fresh phyllo dough and stuffed with feta cheese that nearly caramelizes in the heating process (the spinach variety also contains nuggets of the cheese, but opt for the former to enjoy the unadulterated pleasure).
Arabic cuisine your yen? You can never err with fattoush, refreshing yet bracing and featuring a furtive dose of parsley and garlic underneath enough sumac to engender a cough. Rare is the pita sandwich that impresses, but Kerostena’s beef shawerma is one of them: prickly garlic sauce; huge onion slices; pita bread heated to a perfect crunch, yet still pliable enough to bend but not shatter; and a meat so perfectly spiced I’d call it the best shawerma in Orange County if the honor didn’t already belong to Sahara Falafel in Anaheim. Kerostena stuffs so much meat into these sandwiches that trying to unwrap the foil that keeps it together unleashes an ingredient waterfall. You can order hummus or tzatziki on the side, but be wise and order a full plate if you need a spread. Oh, and ignore the offer of French fries—you’re in a Mediterranean joint, for chrissakes, not Carl’s Jr. Instead, go for the stuffed grape leaves for tubular pleasure.
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Kerostena also offers rarities—kibbeh, a type of meat-based falafel, except bulghur wheat replaces chick-pea flour and pine nuts stud savory ground beef, or the even-rarer hawawshi, an Egyptian take on the ever-present flatbread-esque pizza but here just ground beef, bell peppers and onions baked on pita bread. A great office lunch. And dessert includes basbousa, a Middle Eastern-style sponge cake prepared with semolina and coconut, sweet but surprising at the end. Want overwhelming sweetness? Try the baklava.
“This is your first time here?” the kind owner asked on my initial visit. A bronze plate of a Madonna with child (the Coptic Christian version?) stood behind him. “You’ll be back.” And I was—and so will you.
Kerostena Grill, 12546 Valley View St., Garden Grove, (714) 893-8404; www.kerostenagrill.com.