Ali Baba and the 40 thieves are legendary figures in Arabic literature that even earned a shout out in the Beastie Boys song Rhymin’ & Stealin’. To start the 21st Century, the story’s unscrupulous lead character inspired Othman Kalasho to open a family friendly restaurant called Ali Baba in El Cajon featuring the hearty cooking of an Iraqi-born chef. The neighborhood’s become a destination for the more than 10,000 Iraqi refugees who have relocated to El Cajon and crave a taste of home, and for fans of Middle Eastern cuisine. The restaurant’s proven so popular that Kalasho also has a branch of Ali Baba in Escondido.
Families and couples pile into a sprawling dining hall with patterned walls that host paintings of Iraq. A tasseled blue “tent” frames the interior, which is designed to resemble “the atmosphere of Ancient kings of Arabia’s tent (shahriar & shahrazad).” Somehow, the décor stays on the right side of tasteful, but really, more people focus on the food.
Ali Baba serves plenty of meat, so a good counterweight to start is tabbouli, a light salad of cracked wheat, parsley and fresh squeezed lemon juice.
Ali Baba’s hummus hits the right balance between creamy and hefty, blended with tahini and finished with a colorful dusting of dried red pepper powder.
Ali Baba’s Feast for Three People includes heaps of basmati rice, saffron rice, and bulgur piled with chicken leg, juicy schnitzel, beef shawarma, ground beef and chicken kebabs, and complementary garnishes. Seven of us were unable to finish our feast.
It was my first time trying Kobba Musilia, a savory cracked wheat pie filled with seasoned ground beef and served with tart pickled turnip spears.
“I’m sure you don’t taste the blood with 15 juices.” That’s what Harlen Bayha said about Blood Juice, a blend of fruit juice and tea that our server claimed contains cow blood. He responded, “I wouldn’t say that.” Whether it contained blood or not, it was a flavorful fruit punch.