Life at Kabab Grill revolves not, as its name suggests, around a grill for its kebabs but around an imposing stone oven. The 4-by-6-foot custom-made behemoth dominates the open kitchen at this otherwise modest 2-month-old cafe in Palms. "Last week we roasted a whole stuffed lamb in it for someone's party," owner Firas Tar, who comes from Syria, tells a customer, clearly proud of his oven's prowess.
But whole roast lamb isn't on the daily menu at Kabab Grill. The oven's cardinal purpose is to bake safeeha, a thin Syrian-style flatbread loaded with savory toppings.
The luxuriant pies, about the diameter of a medium-size flour tortilla, emerge from the oven as textural wonders. Little charred pockets dot the undersides, while flavor-drenched top layers seep into the baked dough.
Closely related to the cracker-thin Armenian-Lebanese lahmajoun and a cousin of the puffier herb-splashed Arabic breakfast bread manakeesh, safeeha has to be one of the Middle East's most delicious culinary treasures.
People swoon for the version blanketed with the proprietor's "secret" blend of three Middle Eastern cheeses. The beef pie, lahm bi-ajeen, holding crispy wisps of meat colored deep red with flecks of chile, may remind you of the flatbreads from local lahmajoun-erias — only these are slightly thicker. Chicken safeeha, the heartiest, holds a moist layer of lemon- and herb-infused ground meat. And for vegetarians, there's a California-esque safeeha topped with shredded fresh basil and sliced fresh tomato and also one with chopped vegetables and a light sprinkling of cheeses (or none, on request). Want your safeeha Saudi style, formed into an elongated boat shape as one man requested? Just ask.
Each safeeha, usually thought of as mezze or a snack, comes cut into eighths for sharing, but a couple of these beauties, priced at $2 to $3, could suffice as a meal.
Service is order-and-pay-at-the-counter style, but eating at this thoughtfully decorated spot is a little like gathering around someone's oven waiting for a pie to come out —or for Mom to finish cooking your lamb chops or salmon kebab. Ayesha, Mrs. Tar, will often be at the register with an eye on her little girl, while husband Firas and crew scurry around in full view removing pitas from the raging oven to wrap around generous stuffings of meat or falafel.
"He's in charge of the food, and I do the business end," she will tell you. The former human resources manager, who has lived in the U.S. since she was 2, claims it was her husband, whose family boasts several professional chefs back in Syria, who dreamed of creating the restaurant's dishes. "Life is about doing what you love to do," he'll say, grinning.
Ask him about the stuffed kibbe, its outer covering just millimeters thin, or the house-made sauces and the amazing salad dressing that no one can get enough of. He may then regale you with tales of his grandmother drying fresh chiles on the roof of their home in Latakia when she'd put up her yearly supply of sauce.
Tar has clearly inherited his grandmother's talent for precise seasoning, as evidenced by the chicken and beef shawarma and kofta. Assembled from chunks of solid, lightly marinated meat, the shawarma is cooked crispy-edged and juicy yet seems greaseless. It's surely the neighborhood's finest specimen.
If you're intent on speedy dining, it's best to call ahead for takeout (even if you eat there) because it's not until you make a request that the thwack-thwack-thwack of dough being patted out for your safeeha is heard. If you order empanada-like baked fatayer (stuffed with spinach, pine nuts and onion or with cheeses) or meat-stuffed baked samosas, they won't go into that oven until you order them.
LOCATION: 10401 Venice Blvd., No. 101-B, Los Angeles, (310) 202-0041
PRICE: Safeeha, $1.99 to $3.50; appetizers and soups, $3.99 to $4.50; wraps with salad and hummus, $4.50 to $5.99; entrees, $7.99 to $14.99.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major cards. Lot and street parking.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times