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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Desert Cuisine in VA

If you’ve been following this blog closely, or if you know the family of Bruck personally, you’ll know that we made the move from the Detroit, MI, area to northern VA in the summer of ’06. You’ll also know that there are a number of things we miss about southeast MI, including good radio stations, navigable roads, and some discernable culture beyond chain restaurants and townhouse developments. We know it’s a fool’s game to try to replace all the things we left behind, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying!

A unique demographic of the Detroit area is a large Middle Eastern population, mainly Shia Muslims, the largest concentration being in Dearborn, a suburb to the immediate southwest of Detroit. Dearborn is also home to Ford Motor Company, where your faithful editor collected paychecks for most of the last 15 years. During this time, I developed a deep appreciation for ME food from the various restaurants and bakeries in the vicinity.

This affinity is shared by my remarkable wife and at least half my kids, so since we moved to VA, one of the missing pieces of our jigsaw puzzle has been some good ol’ down home imam chow. Until recently, we’ve come up short on that count. A few months ago we did find one purported ME place that garnered (or bought!) good reviews, but which turned out to be Persian, not Lebanese or Arabian, a bit pricey, and fairly prissy in its presentation, and whose clientele seemed to boast a bit more than a proportional representation of Marilyn Monroe fans. So we crossed that one off our list, but hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It offered a perfectly good meal, but it just wasn’t what we were looking for.

Unrequited yearnings for Hezbollah Helper thus remained our state of affairs …until a few weeks ago when I found a flyer on my windshield at the train station parking lot, advertising the new Sahara restaurant. The included menu featured many of the Lebanese items we’d been craving, including baba ganoush, hummous, various kebabs, falafel, etc.

Okay, before we get too much further, let me expand on the cultural scene in northern VA. There, I just did it. Wanna see it again? Really, if you have so much as a shred of awareness of the level of sophistication and imagination in northern VA, you’d know that a quest for authentic Middle Eastern cuisine would be an uphill battle. And this would be all the more true of Manassas, whose claims to fame are two major civil war battles (2:0 Confederates), and the distinction of being the hometown of John Wayne Bobbit and his incisive wife, Lorena.

So we gave the Sahara a try. We found it in a strip mall of sorts, in an industrial/commercial area not far from the train station. Its layout and ambience were pretty similar to the Detroit area Jihad Joints - fairly clean with formica tables and tile floors, an illuminated menu on the wall behind the walk-up counter, and garish but inexpensive décor throughout. We were the only customers in the place. The prices were pretty reasonable, and the food wasn’t too bad. Not like anything in Detroit’s “Little Lebanon,” mind you, but pretty good, considering… considering that it’s in the hometown of John Wayne Bobbit and shares a building with a U-Haul dealership.

We infidels would frequently chuckle at the background music at the Detroit-area ME restaurants. I really couldn’t do it justice trying to describe it to you, so just imagine the neighbor’s cat in heat with a sitar and keyboard accompaniment. Not so at the Sahara. When we arrived the first time, there was no music at all, and after a while, it was Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits. That’s right, She Believes in Me, Lady, We’ve Got Tonight, You Decorated My Life, you know what I’m talking about. After a while, though, they started playing some genuine ME hollering and twanging, so we felt right at home again. But then we noticed something really strange. The ME “music” was fairly loud, but during the quiet parts, we could make out Kenny Rogers, still belting out the cheesy hits. It was just so profoundly deranged we couldn’t help but laugh. Fortunately, after a while they gave up on trying to induct us into their peaceful religion, and we went back to Kenny, solo.

A couple weeks later, we went back to the Sahara for dinner, and again we were the only customers. There were some other people in the dining room, but they appeared to be the rambunctious kids and testy wife of at least one of the employees. And after not too long, Kenny Rogers was back with us, his Greatest Hits wafting from the speakers to our grateful ears, and this time he wasn’t drowned out, even temporarily, by Sing Along with Ahmed. We had another fine meal and wished among ourselves that their small business loan doesn’t run out too soon.

So really, we’ve killed two birds with one stone. In northern VA of all places, not only can we get passably good ME food at a reasonable price from a restaurant that’s not too far away, but also, if we’ve got a bad jones for a dose of schmaltzy, post-menopausal 70’s and 80’s easy-listening crossover country tunes, we know where to get that too!

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