Of Hummus and Hezbollah
Think your birthday dinner conversation was all over the map? Check out the loud references at mine: Hezbollah, poor ol' USC Trojans, CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) being a front group for Hezbollah, UCLA quarterback Patrick Cowen's days at St. John Bosco High School, poor ol' Beirut, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, how culturally different India and the good ol' USA are, St. John Bosco soccer, Tiffany's in New York, Martin Short's one-man Broadway show, my vegan kids, Esperanza High School's athletic dominance, poor ol' Lebanon, whether Tigger was the mascot for St. Joseph High School's Class of 1980 and whether mentioning Hezbollah at a table in a Lebanese restaurant such as this would spring forth an appetizer laced with shoe bomb.
Meejana—a Lebanese-tinged, "fine Mediterranean cuisine" restaurant in Orange that has hosted Patrick Henry Democratic Club meetings—was where the eight white Southlanders in my party gathered for the 17th anniversary of my 29th birthday. Gale-force winds slamming into the glass entry door made for a surreal evening: every last OC Weekly had been blown out of the news rack steps from that door to produce a dust-debris-paper tornado show.
The interior is pleasant, a stage for belly dancing was sadly empty and Arabic tunes wafted softly from the speakers, prompting our own attempts to hum along, make the lah-lah-lah-lah noise and table dance in such a way as to offend three-quarters of the nations from the region that brought the world "fine Mediterranean cuisine."
We had to laugh at the sign on our table: "reserved." But once word gets out about Meejana's tasty dishes, the place should be packed with more than Democrats and politically incorrect revelers. In between the wrath of Ma Nature and our boorish tableside behavior, there was an overabundance of "ohhs" and "ahhs" and "yums" and "you've got to try the red pepper dip" (muhammara) and other assorted tips of the beret to what was turning out to be our own personal cook, until a larger party arrived halfway into our meal.
We didn't even order from the menu. The waiters just kept bringing out cold appetizers first, then the warm ones and then the kebabs. Besides the aforementioned muhammara, the cold plates included your standard hummus, labneh (Lebanese cream cheese topped with olive oil), grape leaves, bastorma (thin slices of aged beef), kibbe nayeh (minced raw beef mixed with cracked wheat and spices) and a tabbouleh salad. Pita bread, the dipee for all these dip-worthy dishes, came in a basket, which we had refilled a few times to sop up every last morsel. Someone from the Hezbollah-fearing side of the table mixed several cold ingredients into her own Lebanese sandwich, which she's now offering to make at parties. Tell a friend.
Now, lean cuisiners—washing this down as we were with red wine or, in my case, a Lebanese beer—would have stopped right there, saved room for a sliver of birthday ice cream cake and Turkish coffee to come later and then headed into that Wicked Witch-threatening windstorm. But we had not even breezed through halfway point yet.
Here come the hot appetizers: golf-ball sized falafel served with a winning sesame sauce on the side; fried kibbe (spheres of ground beef and cracked wheat stuffed with sauteed minced beef, onions and nuts—and then deep fried); cheese rolls (a BIG hit, think of hot egg rolls filled with feta and Lebanese cheeses); and, the hot plate that produced some major head-scratching, French fries. A holdover from the French influence over "Paris of the Middle East" Beirut, perhaps?
The only sour note concerned soujouk, the Armenian beef sausage sautéed with diced tomatoes. Too . . . um . . . not good. But the makanek, a Lebanese sausage sautéed in a lemon sauce, got our table's collective approving nod. Did I mention this place specializes in Lebanese food?
Our bellies now blown out to Augustus Bloopian proportions, along came the killer: a platter filled with beef kebab, chicken kebab and kefta, or minced beef and lamb with onions, parsley and spices. It was passed across the table, at multiple angles, before our overstuffed party had finally, mercifully emptied it.
Who wants ice cream cake? We'd have needed to walk to the Syrian border to make room for it. Despite the massive meal's weightiness and Meejana's emptiness and our party's political boorishness, not one among us would skip a date to come back for more. For karma's sake, I'll bring a pal from CAIR next time.
MEEJANA, 1842 N. TUSTIN AVE., STE. C, ORANGE, (714) 974-6991; WWW.MEEJANA.NET. OPEN TUES.-SUN., 11:30 A.M.-10 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$20, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER AND WINE.
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