Healthy, tasty plates a passport to Middle East
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Even after 23 years in Hawai'i, Victor Kaloustian and his family found themselves homesick for the foods of their native Beirut, in Lebanon. So Kaloustian came up with a way to surround himself with falafel and kebbeh, babaganoush and tabouli every day: Four months ago, he and his brother, Avo, and sister-in-law, Janet, opened a restaurant.
Good & Healthy Cafe is tucked in an indoor alley off Merchant Street — a place lined with lunch spots busy on weekdays with foraging office workers. Amid the usual sandwiches and Island-style plate lunches, Good & Healthy's Styrofoam clamshells are a passport to exotic locales. Though they advertise the food as Lebanese, theirs is a pan-Middle Eastern menu, with detours to Israel, Greece and Turkey.
In an interview after my visits there, Kaloustian said he brings in many of the ingredients from Los Angeles. The menu, he said, is slightly Westernized in one regard: In Lebanon, menu items are sold a la carte. But here, people expect the entree-rice-salad plate lunch formula, so he has complied, offering either a tomato-and-lettuce salad or, with some plates, generous servings of emerald-green tabouli (chopped parsley, tomato and bulgar salad).
Good & Healthy's rice is of particular interest: Instead of the familiar steamed short-grain rice that sits up in mounds, the take-out spot serves a golden-toned bed of long-grain rice pilaf. In keeping with Lebanese tradition, this exceptionally tender rice is made with broth rather than water and is flecked with bits of angel hair pasta. It's the Rice-A-Roni idea, but far superior to the packaged product, delicately flavored and a bit rich (I suspect some olive oil is involved, too).
Good & Healthy is about the size of the average one-person office, with a counter at right angles to the door, three two-top tables and a galley-size kitchen at the back; it bears evidence of a previous Mexican or perhaps Italian incarnation, with faux bricks painted around the doorways and chilies hanging on the wall.
But it's not the surroundings that furnish the first impression, or even the alluring spicy smells. It's Kaloustian's buoyant personality. He greets everyone, calling regulars by name; he teases, jokes and flatters while relaying orders to Janet in their native tongue. And he keeps the food moving swiftly.
The menu, prominently posted on the wall, consists of pita sandwiches, plate lunches, salads and rotating daily specials. Your eye is immediately drawn to a tray of fat turnovers stuffed with spinach and feta cheese ($3.25). Good, indeed, but not — alas! — healthy; the buttery layers of puff pastry are so rich, they leave a grease slick on the paper bag they come in. The filling is equally rich.
On the healthy side, there is an attractive, meal-size ready-to-go Greek salad ($6.50) combining greens, tomatoes, onions, Kalamata olives and feta.
The turnovers, which tend to sell out early, are among a number of sides you can order to complement a plate lunch or sandwich. Others include hummus or tabouli (both $3.25), babaganoush (aka poor man's caviar, a tangy eggplant spread; $3.25), rice with lentils ($2.75) and tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber) sauce (75 cents). At 85 cents each, finger-long rice-stuffed grape leaves tease the palate with a tart, lemony flavor, and they're a bargain; a pair of these and a salad readily fills a light eater.
The pita here is a thickish flatbread that they warm on a griddle before serving them; Kaloustian said the thin pockets dry out too quickly; these breads, flown in from Los Angeles, give you something to chew on.
Of the plates I sampled, my favorite was the falafel — five spicy, deep-fried fritters the size of hockey pucks on a bed of salad with pita and tahini (sesame-lemon) sauce ($7.25). Crunchy falafel, a favorite street food of the Middle East, is most often a mixture of ground garbanzos and bulgar wheat, but this one combines fava beans, a favorite of the Lebanese, and garbanzos. The spicing — coriander, cumin, chilies and such — is like a quick visit to a souk (Middle Eastern market).
Chicken tarna and lula kebab (both $7.25) combined skewers of flame-broiled marinated meats with rice, salad and pita, which, though a little dry, were interestingly spiced. A new lamb plate is being added to the menu this week.
I was sorry not to be able to taste a dish I've never seen on a Hawai'i menu, the Turkish specialty imam bayildi ($6.72) — eggplant, tomatoes, onions and spices fried in olive oil, then stuffed back into the eggplant skin and baked. It's served only on Tuesdays, a day I couldn't get away for lunch.
The name means "the priest fainted," and there are various stories told about its origins: It is said that the priest's wife, Fatima, invented the dish one day while her husband was out. After dinner, he praised her creation and asked what was in it. When she told him how much oil she'd used — some versions say a whole quart! — the priest passed out. Some say he fainted because the dish was too rich; others that he fainted at the expense! I did try the eggplant salad ($3.50), a refreshing melange of tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, chopped onion, parsley and roasted eggplant.
I was able to try another daily special, the Friday Lebanese-style beef stew ($7.68), a homey, tomato-based combination of chunks of sirloin, carrots and potatoes — a satisfying Grandma's-kitchen kind of dish not much different from American-style beef stew.
Kaloustian brags about their house-made baklava ($1.50), but I'll get to that next time.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.