Bedouin time for Bonzo

The undercarriage of the Chrysler bounced off an expansion joint as I veered off Interstate 80 onto the L Street exit. A shower of sparks shot out the rear of the car. My dining companion, who also happened to be the car’s owner, gave me a disapproving look.

“Where are we going?” she said.

“Café Morocco.”

“Café Morocco?!”

It was Saturday night, four days after the terrorist attack on America, and there was fear in her voice. Maybe I should have been scared, too. After all, authorities had already determined that the terrorists had most likely come from the Middle East and had been hiding out in the United States for years.

Yet there we were, pulling into the parking lot of one of the few Middle Eastern (actually, North African, but the food is similar) restaurants in Sacramento. A dark-haired man sat on the concrete wall separating the parking lot from the alley smoking a cigarette. He smelled like security. But security from what?

Inside, I was pleased to see the interior of the restaurant had taken on a decidedly more Middle Eastern flavor than it exhibited on my last visit several years ago. A brightly colored tapestry, resembling a camel sash but long enough to wrap around the top of the entire room, gave the long, rectangular space a Bedouin feel. Portraits of Middle Eastern queens, Mediterranean landscapes and lots of brass gave the place a pseudo-Third-World-strip-mall kinda feel.

Which was cool. I’d chosen Café Morocco because I needed to get some kind of perspective on the events that have consumed the nation, and if the closest the average Sacramentan can get to that is to dine on Middle Eastern cuisine, well, so be it. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who had the idea, as a pair of acquaintances who were already dining greeted us as we entered.

“We’re looking for the cell,” I joked.

“That’s not funny,” one of them said, and I realized right away that it was going to be a long time before anyone is going to be able to joke about Terrible Tuesday. As the talking heads on TV are so fond of pointing out, things have changed in America, including our sense of humor.

We were seated by a corner window and were promptly waited upon. I ordered a Lebanese beer; its slightly dry flavor proved to be excellent for washing down slices of pita bread dipped in hummus (puréed garbanzo beans) and baba gannouj (puréed baked eggplant). Although both dishes are prepared in identical fashion—puréed with tahini, garlic and lemon and topped with olive oil—each has its own identity. I preferred the sweeter baba gannouj to its more hearty counterpart.

A cup of harira soup—rice, lentils and garbanzo beans in a tomato base, seasoned with cilantro and cinnamon—was delightful. A Greek-style dinner salad, featuring fresh romaine, tomato, cucumber, onions and olives with feta cheese crumbled on top was crisp and tasty, but a bit on the small side.

A blonde belly dancer entertained us during the interlude before our entrées arrived. She vigorously wiggled her voluptuous hips as I attempted to tuck a dollar bill in the waistline of her lacey garment. I realized for the first time that this is supposed to be difficult, a metaphor for the game of cat and mouse the sexes play with each other.

My dining companion had chosen the Casablanca kabob, which turned out to be tender chunks of charbroiled lamb served with Café Morocco’s own tangy sweet-but-subtle barbecue sauce. My chicken curry hit the scale somewhere between casserole and stew, with large chunks of chicken, red potatoes and zucchini in a curry sauce that was too mild despite the waitress’s warning.

As we got up to leave, my dining companion breathed a sigh of relief. She’d been nervous the whole time sitting in that window seat.

“I kept expecting some crazy redneck to pull a drive-by,” she said.

That’s when it dawned on me: It wasn’t the Middle Easterners she was afraid of. It was us.

And that, despite all this talk of everything changing, is hardly anything new.