Once upon a time, every Sunday the church doors would fly open and pious, hungry members of the Lebenese community would fill the streets of North Park.
Dragging plastic patio furniture around weathered tables, families lingered over mana’eesh flatbreads and hummus in the backyard of a modest home on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama Street, once home to a woman simply known as “Mama”.
Her sons, Rene and Alphonse, encouraged her restless talents and her desire to feed the community the familiar flavors of Lebanon. Neighbors began offering her money for home cooked dishes, and her sons codified the home business.
One day, a jogging journalist from the Union Tribune stopped in made her backyard talents famous.
Today the church is gone, Mama is gone, and her sons have retired from the restaurant. But locals still flock to Mama’s Bakery for tender sajj bread and other Lebanese specialities.
The converted home is still dominated by a breezy patio built out with a fiberglass roof that filters pale green light over vintage prints of the ocean, which hang off the brick fence.
The restaurant’s 4th and current owner, Edward Haidar, was an early customer of the original Mama’s and jumped at the chance when the business came up for sale 2004.
This year, Haidar renewed the lease and looks forward to ongoing improvements to the property.
“We’re going to be in the neighborhood for a while. There are a lot of changes in the area, a lot of growth, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” he says gensering to the apartment building rising across the street. “I think there are going to be a lot of pedestrians now, walking down El Cajon Boulevard, so hopefully we’ll bring the magic back, like old times.”
The star of the kitchen is the sajj, a dark barrel oven capped with a black dome where the dough bubbles and browns to order.
The recipe is a simple blend of flour, salt, yeast, and water that has essentially remained unchanged since the 80’s. The sajj breads capture the heart of the menu: manaeesh flatbreads and wraps spread with herbs and stuffed with falafels, fried eggplant, and even grape leaves.
On lazy days consider the ful mudamas, a fava and garbanzo bean stew served over hummus or with pickled veggies and pita.
“Usually, people eat it on the weekend because it’s such a heavy dish—it’s all beans—and when you eat it, a half hour later you feel like you want to go to sleep,” Haidar explained.
A notable diversion from the Lebenese offering is the squeeze bottle of Louisiana-style hot sauce on each table. The tangy sauce delivers more acid than heat, and is an ideal complement to the legumes, herbs, and breads in many of the dishes.
“Sometimes I put Sriracha or Tampaco outside,” said Haidar. “You know, because people like familiarity.”
What to Order
The singular star of the vegan options is the Manaeesh Plus ($6.49).
The made to order flatbread comes spread with za'atar (a spice blend anchored with ground thyme, roasted sesame seeds, and the tang of sumac), generously drizzled with olive oil, and rolled up with juicy tomatoes, fresh mint leaves, and dripping with the salty brine of kalamata olives.
Another favorite is the Spinach Pie ($7.49). Here, Mama’s dough is folded over fresh spinach with sweet onions and tart sumac bound in a wash of olive oil.
For those craving the classic tastes of a mezze, the Vegetarian Combo Plate ($13.49) collects the kitchen’s vegan flavors into one dish. With a fist of hummus, the house-smoked baba ghanouj, and a flutter of fresh chopped tabouli topped with three falafels and warm pita.
For dessert, vegan baklava is always on hand. Haidar has it shipped from Shatila in Dearborn, Michigan where he grew up. Michigan is home to the largest Lebanese community outside of Lebanon, so it stands to reason that it would be the best place to get baklava expertly made with olive oil instead of butter.
Pro Tip: While the Manaeesh Plus is a wrap for one, you can cut the roll into 1” thick pinwheels (keep toothpicks on hand just incase) to build an impressive party platter.
4237 Alabama Street, North Park
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10am-8pm; Saturday & Sunday, 10am-4pm