Two women expertly stretch rounds of bread over a domed cushion before slapping them onto the scorching interior wall of a tanoor oven. The bread puffs and chars for a few moments before it’s hooked and tossed onto a platter. Across the kitchen, a butcher breaks down lamb and beef into cubes for skewering, throwing larger pieces into a mincer to make ground meat kebabs known in Iran as koobideh, in Turkey as kofte, and in Iraq simply as kebab. In Arabic, keba means “to turn,” which is exactly what the men working the grill do once the kebab has passed to them from the hands of another cook expertly working baseball-sized portions onto flat skewers.
Flames leap and smoke perfumes the air as fat drips from the meat onto the charcoal below. Rows of skewered tomatoes, onions, and chiles blister alongside. The final step in this well-practiced dance is the placement of the kebab and vegetables on a freshly baked round of tanoor bread.
Azad works the front counter, and his bright eyes oversee the action. The moment the kebabs hit the plate, he scoops it up and passes it to Najla, who delivers the feast to a waiting table. Her smile is well known to diners at Saray, where she has worked since the original Turkish owners opened shop at the far end of East Main Street and Jamacha.
“I’ve been in El Cajon more than 20 years now,” she says, sharing that she is originally from Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, “on the border with Iran.” When asked if El Cajon now feels like home, she places a hand on her royal blue hijab-covered head. “Oh yes, of course! When I go back to Iraq, it has changed so much I don’t recognize it.”
The manager, John, originally from Baghdad, has lived in El Cajon since the 1970s and has witnessed the East County city completely transform. “This street,” he says gesturing towards Jamacha Road, “used to have maybe one car per hour. Now look at it! There must be 200 cars passing each hour.”
Over the last seven years, the shop has amicably changed hands several times, passing to Iranian owners (Azad’s brother), and most recently, to two Iraqi business partners, Mumtaz Malan and Ari Segman, who can often be found alongside their staff, cutting lamb and chicken, and mincing beef for their signature grilled meats.
Places like Saray exemplify the way a tapestry of regional flavors can harmonize rather than clash. The diverse staff are reflected in utterly perfect mixed grill combination platters. Dips include the usual suspects, like smoky baba ghanoush (also called moutabal), and hummus so tahini-rich it’s as nutty as peanut butter—and a dish you won’t find anywhere else.
Azad explains that their signature spicy eggplant dip is a bit of a hybrid created by an Egyptian chef that worked with the original Turkish owners. Loosely based on a garlicky Iranian roasted eggplant dish called mirza ghassemi, this version packs plenty of extra spice from black pepper, chile, and a tangy hit of pomegranate. It is the superb prelude to the shop’s meltingly tender Iraqi minced meat kebabs.
Saray’s recently scaled-down menu, which used to sprawl with Iranian, Turkish, and Pan-Middle Eastern delicacies, now focuses on Iraqi essentials: fresh tanoor bread, dips, grilled meats, and a pickled vegetable bar where, alongside fresh herbs and pickled radishes and beets, toum, a distinctly Iraqi garlic sauce can be found.
“The Jewish traders brought amba back from India,” John explains, pointing to a bright orange, savory mango chutney. “They carried it back in 100-kilogram jugs. As a boy, we used to buy amba and tomato sandwiches on the street for around 10 cents,” he shakes his head. “We cried when the Jews were kicked out of Iraq.”
El Cajon is home to the second largest Iraqi community in the country, many of whom are Chaldean Catholics. When asked if he is Chaldean, John waves his hand. “This is a religion, not a place. We are all Iraqi, we are all human, we are all the same. Here we have Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish, Christian, Turkish, Muslim.” He smiles as he looks around the bustling kitchen.
The area has drawn immigrants from across the Middle East and Central Asia who enjoy the sense of community, access to traditional ingredients, and events from church and mosque services to employment workshops carried out in Arabic. The tapestry of influence is reflected on menus that go far beyond generic Mediteranean dishes.
A dazzling array of regional Middle Eastern foods are available in this East County hamlet with dishes like mandi from the Arabian Gulf, which can be found at Zarzour restaurant on the western end of Main Street. The red-skinned, roasted chicken is atop a mountain of spiced rice, the same way it’s found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The newest immigrants from Syria have already begun to leave their mark on the culinary landscape, opening restaurants like Mal al Shams farther down Main Street where guests enjoy specialties like shawarma and kibbeh mashwiyeh, a grilled version of the more commonly fried bulgur patties stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts.
Thousands of Iraqi refugees came to El Cajon to escape persecution under Saddam Hussein, and then again to escape the fallout from the Iraq war in 2003, and the flavors of Iraq remain the most prominent.
At Shakirah Pastry, the young woman’s eyes light up when asked about the national cookie of Iraq.