Upon my first trip to El Mahroosa Cafe N Hookah Lounge, I had a choice. Do I sit in the stark white room under harsh fluorescent lights, or do I make my way to the covered patio? It was clear. No one sits in the front room. Everyone, even if they're not planning to puff on a hookah pipe, chooses the patio.
Out here, there were plush orange couches and cushioned wicker chairs. On the far wall, fan-blown fabrics emulated torches. Underneath the doorway to the kitchen, a huge clock was labeled “Cairo.” Throughout the cavernous space, all the flat-screen TVs were tuned to the same channel, the Middle Eastern equivalent of MTV. As the evening progressed, more people streamed in. There were groups of men, women in hijabs, whole families with kids still in strollers.
It was the day after the end of Ramadan. Had I come the night before, it would've been even busier. For its iftar buffet, El Mahroosa suspended the regular menu, transforming the patio into an epic all-you-can-eat feast that lasted until the wee hours of the morning–one of the grandest meals you can have in all of Anaheim's Little Arabia. But that's over. Reading the single-sheet laminated menu, I had questions about the more exotic-sounding dishes that didn't have photos next to them.
“What is mouloukhiya and koushari?” I asked. The waitress was in no mood to explain and muttered something I couldn't make out. Rather than pressing her, I moved on and inquired about a drink on the menu called “karkade.”
“It's an Egyptian drink,” she replied rather curtly.
Sensing her growing impatience, I told her I'd try it, as well as some kofta for my meal. As she walked away, I Googled “karkade” on my phone and found out it was hibiscus tea. The kofta, I already knew. And when it arrived, it was as I expected: two slender cylinders of char-roasted ground-beef kebabs packed onto skewers over yellow basmati rice with scorched onions and a roasted tomato. The kofta was smoky, delicious even before I doused it with the thimble of the mint-and-cucumber yogurt served on the side. But as I ate the meal, I vowed that the next time I came, I'd try something I didn't already know, something beyond the kofta, the shawerma and falafels. Before I left, I took pictures of the entire menu. Then I Googled everything on it when I got home.
When I returned the following night with friends in tow, I was prepared. With confidence, I told our server–a different person this time–that I wanted the mouloukhiya, which was a soup made from pulverized mallow leaves. One site I read said it would be as mucilaginous as okra. And it was. Every spoonful I slurped from the bowl trailed slime. What I didn't expect was how verdantly fresh and comforting it was, rivaling the best Southern pot-stewed collard greens, but somehow even better than that. Also, the soup was just one facet of the dish. It came with half a golden rotisserie chicken with crispy skin served over the same yellow rice I had a day earlier with the kofta.
We ate only some of that rice because we also ordered the kabsa, one of the restaurant's specialties in which the basmati grains were blasted with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom, then decorated with crunchy almonds and topped with a choice of chicken or lamb. We chose the chicken, finding it was the other half of the bird that came with the mouloukhiya, except embellished with ribbons of deep-fried onions.
The kabsa reminded us a lot of Indian biryani and made us wonder how different it was from the dish the restaurant actually called “beryani,” which our waiter said wasn't available that night. But there was plenty to keep our mouths occupied and stuffed. There were swirls of hummus served with bits of char-kissed beef that we smeared on warmed pita bread. There was freshly fried kebbeh as big as Christmas ornaments exploding spiced ground beef when their crunchy outer crusts were breached.
For dessert, there was om ali, a fuming, baked-to-order crock pot that's a cross between bread pudding and baklava, and kunafa, a heavenly cheese-oozing square similar to Greek saganaki, but sweetened with syrup and showered with crispy threads of thin noodle. As the food settled, I sank further in my chair. In the meantime, my friends puffed hookah (available here in more fruity flavors than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream) while the servers swapped out the coal with new ones that spat out red-hot embers as they carried them from table to table in repurposed metal strainers. I realized then why no one sat inside.
El Mahroosa Cafe N Hookah Lounge, 930 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 991-9200. Follow it on Instagram: @elmahroosacafe. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $30-$50, food only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.