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.
Both market and café share the same large, wood-and-plywood paneled space. The shelves are lined with pickles, dates, fruit syrups, rose water, olive oil, saffron of dubious authenticity, and other obscure and common Middle Eastern specialty items. The air, heavy and sweet, carries an indecipherable mix of spices. The tableware and many of the decorative trinkets seem to have been outfitted by estate sale, which creates a cobbled-together feel of the place that’s endearing if you're not too-high maintenance of a diner.
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.
The menu includes Iraqi versions of recognizable Middle Eastern dishes (hummus and tabbouleh, for example) and some rare Iraqi specialties. Eggplant soup was chunky, dark, and richly aromatic with cardamom and clove. The kebab plate, featuring three long tubes of ground, spiced lamb and a salad of pickles, won't send you home hungry. An Iraqi fish dish called masgouf wasn’t available when I first ordered it, but after further inquiry I learned it is in fact available, but 24-hours notice is required. I made arrangements to try it, and I invited some friends.
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.
It was dense with pistachio pieces and sprinkled with a red powder. The sweet cheese stiffened as it cooled at my table.
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.