112 W. Washington St
San Diego 92103
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily
Cuisine: Greek and Persian
Budget impact: Low
It took several visits to Mediterranean Café before I discovered a couple of unlikely blue-ribbon specialties obscured by the lure of charry chicken kabobs and hearty spanakopita. If you’re hankering for an outstanding burger and a consummate slice of key lime pie to wash it down, then believe it or not, you’ve come to the right place.
How did these mainstays of Americana land within a scramble of Greek and Persian cuisine? Chalk it up to cultural assimilation via the palate. Iranian owner Fred Laleh developed a fierce liking for burgers while working at a McDonald’s after emigrating here. But don’t cringe. His patties are easier on the carotid arteries, oozing thinner juices, less sodium and bonus spices. As for the silken key lime pie, the recipe hails from a former employee of the café, who wowed Laleh when she first introduced him to the Floridian dessert. Sold whole or by the slice, count yourself lucky if the day’s supply hasn’t vanished by nightfall.
In these economically stressed times, Mediterranean Café affords some excellent bargains. For under $10, you can plow through an appetizer combo containing smoky eggplant dip that is sweeter than standard babaganoush; a generous scoop of tabouli balancing parsley and mint; a plop of Israeli-style hummus distinguished by extra creaminess; chunks of goat cheese feta; brined olives and two falafel balls harboring a secret piquant spice. Yowza! A paper-lined, plastic basket filled with warm, puffy pita clenches the deal.
Kabobs sizzle in various combinations of beef, chicken and shrimp. They’re seared on a gas-flame grill. So flavorsome that you’d swear real briquettes are fueling the fire. It didn’t take long before I defaulted to the chicken kabobs, which I’m guessing are marinated in paprika and saffron given their tangy succulence and light-orange tint. Conversely, the beef kabobs have been inconsistent -- tender in one experience; tough and veiny all other times.
Gyros are reliable. Cooked on an upright spit, the beef-lamb mince reveals whispers of oregano and garlic. No surprises here, except for copious raw onions blasting through a well-endowed gyro sandwich in my most recent visit.
The menu continues with the usual suspects: spanakopita (pastry layered with spinach and feta); stuffed grape leaves; plus salads and pizzas blending both Greek and Middle Eastern influences. Laleh blurs the culinary lineage in his dishes while keeping them homey.
Buttery yellow walls, slate flooring and wrought iron café tables shape the casual atmosphere. Service for the most part is swift, though void of formality and pretense as we expect from neighborhood eateries. In other words, come as you are, in flip-flops or well-heeled.