I learned to enjoy Middle Eastern food back in my college days at a peculiarly misnamed establishment called Kwikee Take Out. Owned by a crazed and big-hearted man named Tommy, Kwikee Take Out looked like any college town beer and pizza hall except that the menu had more than a hundred items, most of them Middle Eastern specialties such as Greek salads, dolmas, falafel and spanakopita.
For at least a year, until I made my way through that menu, Kwikee Take Out was the only place I wanted to eat. The food was lusty, the portions large, the prices low. It was culinary adventuring on a student budget and I loved every minute there. Kwikee Take Out was my introductory course to Middle Eastern fare, my International Eating 101.
Today, the wobbly furniture, hard-drinking student clientele and deafening noise level would hold little allure; indeed, Kwikee Take Out hasn't been my favorite restaurant for nearly 20 years. I still get a hankering for a really good kebab, though. I have found just such a kebab recently--tender, succulent, medium-rare lamb--in a very peaceful and palatable atmosphere at the Cafe Mediterranean in Toluca Lake.
For years, Cafe Mediterranean was a small corner storefront, but 11 months ago it doubled in size to accommodate its burgeoning business. Now composed of two pretty dining rooms, the place is thriving; in the pink, one might say.
At the very least one must say that it is pink--very pink. The walls are pink, the table linens are pink, the to-go menus are pink; it's like being inside a pink tutti-frutti jelly bean. This is not an unpleasant sensation. There are other non-unpleasant sensations as well: sunshine from a skylight, fresh flowers on the tables, posters of Lebanon on the wall.
I went there one day at noon with my friend Michele and we found ourselves lunching with the studio set--men with gelled hair and women in leopard skin. Business was brisk. People looked rosy and healthy . . . in the pink. Good, creamy hummus was disappearing by the pound.
Michele, who lived in Iran for a number of years, pronounced the baba ghanouj some of the best eggplant dip she's ever eaten and highly approved of the strong dose of cumin in the lentil soup. Neither she nor I, however, approved of the beef barley soup, which was chock-full of canned mushrooms. "Everything else here is so fresh and good," Michele said with the kind of outrage only a fan could have. "I really don't think they should use canned mushrooms, do you?" No, I admitted, I didn't.
The shish kebab, which was supposed to include bell peppers, tomatoes and onions, came with only a few slips of onion on the skewer. To tell the truth, I didn't much care, because the meat was excellent. We also liked the fried kibbeh, which is a kind of crunchy-coated, spicy lamb meatball.
Portions were generous--too generous, really, though if I'd paid better attention to the menu I could have ordered more wisely. Many items come in two sizes and prices, but if you don't specify the smaller size, the waiters automatically bring you the larger. This seemed the slightest bit sneaky to me, but otherwise the service was good: prompt, attentive and very friendly.
Michele referred to our particularly friendly, helpful, amused waiter as "a comic Levantine."
"Don't you mean comic valentine? " I asked, thinking of the candy-pink color scheme.
"No, a Levantine," she said. "Someone from the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean. It comes from the French word for sunrise."
The next time he appeared at our table, I asked our waiter if he was from the Levant. He paused a moment, then said, "Yes, Levant is the Phoenician word for what we now call Lebanon." A comic Levantine.
Over the course of several more visits, I enjoyed nearly everything I tried except the Mediterranean shrimp, which were dry, hard and tasteless. The yogurt is very fresh and homemade. Everything but the pita bread--everything from the dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) to the baklava--is made on the premises.
In particular, all the items wrapped in filo were delicious, starting with the cheese and spinach boreks (spelled bourac on this menu). The Moroccan bestila (which the menu calls bastia and is filled with a cashew, chicken and egg mixture) is evocative, provocative and slightly sweet. Best of all is the kouzi , an inspired version of a meat potpie flavored with allspice.
At dinner, perhaps because the customers have had a chance to go home and change their clothes, the Cafe Mediterranean has the look and feel of a favorite neighborhood haunt, very casual and cozy. There are young couples and older couples and tables full of friends on their way to or from the movies.
Something about the place--was it the easy atmosphere, the slightly uncomfortable wooden chairs, the hearty, full-flavored food?--reminded me of the happy times I spent at Kwikee Take Out and the relief I feel at not being of that age and on that budget anymore. The Cafe Mediterranean is quieter, saner and pricier: In other words, it's the perfect place for all us graduates of International Eating 101.
10151 1/2 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake; (818) 769-0865.
Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, Visa and MasterCard. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $45.
Recommended dishes: vegetarian combo appetizer, $9; chicken salad, $6.50; cheese bourac , $6; shish kebab, $8 and $12; kouzi , $7 and $9.