Holy Land Cafe

Mideast Piece 

The Holy Land Cafe hasn't quite resolved its conflicts.

The traditional "holy land" for three of the world's major religions -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- remains the ancient city of Jerusalem, home of historic sites sacred to all three beliefs. For the devout, the idea of a pilgrimage to these holy places often is a great dream. Even my late father, a halfhearted Catholic at best, considered his trip to Jerusalem the highlight of his life. Still, he wasn't so adventurous when it came to eating, and he found the distinctive cuisine of the Middle East, with its flatbreads and salty cheeses, yogurt and Arabic dips, too weird.

"I almost starved!" he told me.

That was his loss. When my father was growing up, many Americans thought strange "ethnic" food consisted of the type of Sicilian cuisine his mother made. Today, Sicilian dishes are as familiar as fried chicken and apple pie, and so are most Middle Eastern dishes -- even several fast-food chains are making sandwiches with pita bread. At Lenexa's three-month-old Holy Land Cafe, Jamil Azzeh, his son, Miles, and cousin Sami Azzeh serve the various ethnic dishes we lump together as Middle Eastern (the culinary styles at Holy Land range from Greek, Turkish and Arabic to all-American) in a setting that's pure Kansas.

The Holy Land Cafe occupies a storefront space in a retail strip center. There's genteel wallpaper and a tiled front counter area, and the uncloaked tables are set with paper napkins. Comfortable, it isn't. On a Saturday night, my friend Jeanne and I sat perched on gold-colored cafe chairs, sipping soft drinks from plastic tumblers and watching noisy little kids running back and forth from the restaurant's entrance to the back dining area -- where a thick cloud hung sullenly over the smoking section's occupants, who were furiously puffing away and drinking little cups of thick Turkish coffee. The recorded voice of a male singer, wailing in mournful Arabic, played at full volume, drowning out any possible conversation.

It was just as well because Jeanne was unsure what she had gotten into. She's a relatively cosmopolitan eater, but even so, she looked with mistrust at the appetizers I had ordered. She had eaten at several local Greek restaurants, so she recognized the stuffed grape leaves (lightly filled with rice, they were pencil-thin and far too oily). And like most Kansas Citians, she was familiar with the hummus, a cool garbanzo dip doused with olive oil and a dollop of hot chile sauce. With the air of a culinary sophisticate, she began scooping it up with triangles of the spongy, warm (though ungrilled) pita bread. But a few minutes later, she picked up a russet-colored, golf-ball-sized globe of falafel and asked, "What is this?"

Surely she knew what falafel was! Today, in New York City, it's just as easy to buy a falafel sandwich on the street as it as a hot dog. But this ancient version of fast food -- made from a fried paste of dried garbanzo beans, garlic, cumin and onion -- has taken slightly longer to catch on in the Midwest, despite this region's passion for anything fried.

I told her to think of the falafel as a Middle Eastern hush puppy -- a savory, dense pastry ball that's crispy on the exterior, soft inside and especially wonderful when dipped in tahini sauce (even though the Holy Land's blend of sesame seed paste, garlic and lemon juice, which came in a tiny paper cup, was a bit watery).

We used more pita slices to spoon up the pale swirl of baba ghanoush, a creamy blend of roasted eggplant and sesame-seed paste. But wedges of feta cheese and spinach wrapped in layers of phyllo pastry (called by the Greeks spanikopita here but known as boereks in Algeria, borekia in Turkey) tasted soggy and chewy, as if they had been prebaked and later warmed up in a microwave. Far better was a flavorful tabbouleh salad made with lots of fresh parsley and mint. And accompanying the dinners were basic little "Greek" salads: iceberg lettuce dappled with a few crumbles of feta cheese, a couple of briny kalamata olives, some shreds of carrot and onion and a thin slice of fresh tomato, all doused with a vinegary, herb-flecked dressing.

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