Who would have expected it? The best plate of fries in Los Angeles is hidden in a Lebanese kitchen, completely invisible in the back corner of a Burbank Boulevard strip mall, near a gigantic neon clown sign hawking liquor.
The place is Hayat's Kitchen, and the dish is potatoes harra, and this may be the only place in the universe you can get this particular version, with freshly fried American-style French fries in a pool of fragrant olive oil, doused with sautéed cilantro, red pepper flakes and . . . what's this white goopy stuff? Is it melted cheese? Nope, it's pungent, creamy garlic paste. This plate of fries is so intense and over the top you might be able to use it to revive the recently deceased.
The fact that these fries even exist in this form is an accident. The original dish, a Lebanese classic, puts all this herby, garlicky action over soft, sautéed potato cubes. But when Hassan Shatila and his wife, Hayat, had just opened Hayat's, business was so slow that fresh-cut potatoes went bad. So they substituted frozen American fries, and the resulting dish is incredible: piping hot, ultra-crispy fries, just beginning to soften in ultra-garlicky oil. It's magic.
Hayat's Kitchen may not be about service -- though, underneath the gruffness, they really care about your experience. Somebody always comes out to ask you about your meal. It's not about decór -- the place is 70% kitchen, with about five tables in front. It's about carefully, lovingly prepared Middle Eastern cuisine.
Just taste the soudjouk, which they make fresh. Most of the soudjouk you get in Southern California is a heavily spiced, dried cured sausage. Their soudjouk are small, plump, moist sausages, and they taste like Christmas, spiced with allspice, cinnamon, garlic, fennel, cloves, nutmeg and cumin -- densely knit layers of flavor. You might find yourself chewing carefully and staring up into space, trying to figure out what exactly that flavor is, and what that other flavor is that tastes so much like a pine tree smells.
Hassan Shatila's favorite dish is hummus and sliced beef, which he invented. It's a plate of his fresh, excellently creamy hummus, topped with a layer of sautéed slices of tenderloin and pine nuts. It's sort of the world's best football game snack, and when it hits the table, a lot of people seem to revert to their animal instincts and just grab hunks of pita and shovel up scoops of the stuff as fast as possible.
Come here and eat everything you can. The falafel are fantastic -- irregular, rough-hewn blobs, made from scratch and glowing with hand-made affection. Kibbeh nayeh -- raw meat and cracked wheat, pounded together -- has perfect subtle stickiness. Shish tawook is perfectly grilled chicken, with loads of that ultra-creamy garlic paste.
Pastries are just as wonderful -- such as the cigar-shaped baklava, which Hassan Shatila dubs "baklava lady fingers," and the kunafa, a charmingly texturally schizophrenic dessert, which is kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) over melted stringy cheese, doused in sweet syrup.
There are daily specials too -- homey stuff, like a warming, comforting stew of green beans, tomatoes and beef. The specials aren't posted anywhere, and they won't tell you about them, but if you ask, the waitress will just start rolling her eyes and going on about how fantastic it is, and the cook might chime in from the back of the kitchen.
If you really like something, they'll just tell you to call a day ahead and ask them for it and they'll fix it as the next day's special.
Because this is the sort of place Hayat's Kitchen is. It's not fussy. It's not eager to please. It's not the kind of place where the waitress constantly bugs you about how you're enjoying your meal.
It's the kind of place where the cook will fix you a big pot of Lebanese coffee and then duck out of the kitchen and pour herself a cup because she's feeling a bit tired. It's sort of like immediately being accepted into a particular sort of blunt, loving family.