As Central Avenue heads east toward the mountains, the gravitational pull of Nob Hill starts to wear thin. Groovy cafés and thrift stores are succeeded by storage units and mom-and-pop car lots. This sleepy urban backwater is where you’ll find the Babylon Grocery and Café, in a strip mall just east of Wyoming. The wood-clad Iraqi restaurant and grocery store has only been open for six months, but it already has the weathered and eclectic feel of a long-standing outpost in a desert far away.
I stopped in one morning for a Turkish coffee. Served in a delicate ceramic cup, the coffee was thick and unspiced. On a counter between the dining room and kitchen, several open boxes were laid out, showing a variety of colorful and flaky baked goods—all of which, I was told, were baklava. I chose a sweet, buttery cheese pastry. It was dense with pistachio pieces and sprinkled with a red powder. The sweet cheese stiffened as it cooled at my table.
The place is run by a family squad of young men. They’re friendly and hospitable, despite being charmingly green in their customer service skills. But the food is so good and interesting that Babylon Café’s eccentricities only heighten the sense of the exotic, as the management’s apparent inability to smoothly adapt to local dining customs translates into a deliciously stubborn authenticity in the kitchen.
It was dense with pistachio pieces and sprinkled with a red powder. The sweet cheese stiffened as it cooled at my table.
A whole carp, head and all, is slow roasted for hours. Although carp is widely considered a trash fish in the U.S., it tasted like a magnificent, extra-oily trout. It was big, garnished with pickles, slices of tomato, lemon and onion, and came with a freshly baked round flatbread that was about 18-inches across.
We asked for some extra plates so we could eat family-style. This seemed to confuse the server, who handed the entire stack to me. My hands were covered with fish oil, so I grabbed a Kleenex from the box that came when we asked for napkins, and wiped the fish grease from my fingers before accepting the plates and passing them around.
In addition to the fish, our spread included large dishes of red and yellow rice, fragrant with cardamom and other ingredients that Sam Alsurati, a co-owner, wouldn’t divulge. And the table was heavy with some more familiar Middle Eastern dishes, of which the hummus was the most striking. It was slightly coarse with a live-food quality, as if the garbanzo beans were soaked to the point of sprouting before being ground. The baba ghanoush was smoky and smooth, with a faint taste of leather. Taboula (as the spelling goes on the menu) was made with dried parsley, which gave it a chewy texture.
High-maintenance diners will probably find plenty to sniff about at Babylon Café. But bargain-hunting culinarians should take note that consistently good food, cheap enough to feed six people on $50, is available in an atmosphere that, at the very least, is stimulating and entertaining.