By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It wasn’t long ago that San Diego’s eminent Lebanese restaurant was just an obscure blip on the culinary scene.
After opening in 2010, Alforon attracted faint trickles of curious neighborhood residents and students from nearby SDSU. With its non-flashy facade barely blinking from a small strip plaza, the place was easy to miss — and it still is despite expanding into an adjoining storefront since then.
Word eventually began spreading about the restaurant’s unique Old World cuisine as well as the owners’ charming front-line style of hospitality. Local food critics picked up on the buzz, and soon after, so did Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
The first time Fieri came knocking was in 2013.
“I said ‘no’ to doing the show because we were still too small,” said George Salameh, a native of Lebanon who owns and operates the restaurant with his delightfully outgoing wife, “Sam.”
It wasn’t until this past year that the Food Network contacted Salameh again. This time, he was ready. And the cameras got rolling in July.
The segment (season 30, episode seven) already aired a couple of times, and it will surely repeat throughout the coming year. It has so far resulted in a 20% bump in business, according to Salameh, whose accolades also include numerous framed reviews and write-ups on the walls by local and national print media.
After eating here on three different occasions, I fully understand the hoopla.
For example, I most recently fell madly in love with soujouk flatbread, as did Fieri, who said, “I could eat 100 of these.”
The flatbread is one of many hot, puffy discs baked in the alforon (oven) from unbleached “hard” flour with assorted meat toppings and stunning combinations of spices. The recipes are hand-downs from Salameh’s father and grandmother, although they supposedly date back centuries.
The soujouk features finely ground beef with Lebanese white cheese. The meat is accented with sumac, fenugreek and hints of red chilies. Though simple, every bite is novel and comforting.
In other visits I tried the “zaatar supreme,” which enlivens the palate with an exotic blend of earthy spices imported from Lebanon. They include wild thyme, sumac and fresh mint. Dollops of soft Kefir cheese add the right touch of creaminess.
The chicken tawook flatbread features minced breast meat set within plops of house-made garlic paste, which slightly dominates whatever spices are used for marinating the poultry. It’s delicious nonetheless.
Alforon’s thinnest flatbread is the lahm bajeen. It uses only 2.1 ounces of dough that gets stretched out to 10-12 inches. The paper-thin crust becomes the vessel for ground beef speckled with bits of tomato and onions, plus wisps of cinnamon and other spices. It melts in the mouth and sits lightly in the stomach.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Salameh introduced kebabs to his expanded menu. I ordered the combo plate featuring a chicken and filet mignon kebab. The meats are marinated in different spices that I couldn’t identify; the chicken for three days, and the beef overnight.
Both titillated the taste buds with the support of fluffy basmati rice, a grilled tomato, a charred onion, garlic paste, and a sauce of yogurt, cucumber and mint, which Salameh stresses isn’t tzatziki.
“Tzatziki is Greek and it has onions and shallots in the recipe. This doesn’t,” he noted.
The menu extends to lamb ouzi; clay-pot sausages; baked portobello mushrooms with feta cheese; and excellent house-made hummus and baba ghannouj served with puddles of fruity-tasting Lebanese olive oil. (Notice how much smoother-tasting the oil is compared to California varieties.)
There are also six different types of “kibbie,” which are blends of various meats, bulgur wheat, onions and spices shaped into balls that I trust live up to their many raves.
For dessert, look no further than the “aaysh essaray.” You won’t find it anywhere else because it’s an original creation by Salameh. Served in large squares, the base is an eggless custard carpeted with crushed pistachios and kissed by nutmeg, cinnamon and a modicum of rosewater.
Alforon’s expanded dining room still feels as cozy and intimate as the day it opened. It offers a rustic, almost Medieval-style charm that sets the stage for meals with historic Middle Eastern roots.
Undoubtedly, the restaurant is a true gem, just no longer a secret anymore.
“People come here from all over — from North County and South Bay, and all the way from Los Angeles,” said Salameh in preparation for even more fanfare once the Food Network starts randomly re-airing his episode down the road.
5965 El Cajon Blvd.
Lunch dishes, $12.95 to $16.50; dinner items, $15.95 to $22.95
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.