Hooked in

Habibi Cafe

7336 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Carmichael, CA 95608

(916) 979-9400

“I don’t know about this,” I said to my mom as we pulled up outside Habibi Cafe. My concern wasn’t so much about the restaurant itself, though it did seem odd that there was only one car in the parking lot, and the restaurant’s exterior is strangely unwelcoming, with awnings hiding windows on the unprepossessing building and the door around to the side. Rather, my worries focused on the plaintive yelps emerging from the back seat of my car. My infant daughter wasn’t crying, exactly, but she was gently making her displeasure known. The thought of taking her into a restaurant when, at any moment, she could bust out into full-fledged screaming was not exactly appealing.

Plus, honestly, the car-less parking lot did give me pause. I hate eating in an empty restaurant, and it never seems like the best situation for assessing a place. We pulled away, thinking perhaps we might go get some takeout. But we ended up driving in a big aimless circle, and as we passed back by Habibi the back seat was silent—and there were several cars in the parking lot. We checked the car seat: The baby was sound asleep, so in we went.

We ended up being glad we had braved it. Aside from some wall decorations of gorgeous brass serving trays, Habibi isn’t much to look at; the inside is dim, and our table had a serious wobble. But the restaurant serves up fresh, well-prepared Middle Eastern fare. The menu offers the basics you would expect: hummus, baba ghanouj, falafel, shish kebab and so on. There are also a couple of less familiar options, such as foul muddama (a fava-bean appetizer; by the way, the word foul is part of the name, not an adjective I added). In addition, the restaurant seems to be hedging its bets on the whole Middle Eastern thing by offering a selection of basic American foods like Caesar salads and Philly cheese steaks.

That’s not to say that the Middle Eastern choices aren’t appealing, because they are. We did notice a table near us where the parents were eating the more authentic food with gusto, and the teenage kids were munching a plate of slightly wan fried mozzarella sticks, so I’d guess that the American food is there at least in part to keep the whole family happy.

My kid isn’t old enough to be picky (or indeed to eat anything but milk), so our table stuck to the Middle Eastern food. I ordered the foul muddama, but our sweet, slightly gawky teenage server shortly came back to tell us the restaurant was out. She recommended hummus or baba ghanouj as a substitute, and we went for hummus (also on her recommendation). It arrived sprinkled with paprika and doused with oil, with a little mound of chickpeas in the center of the dish and with a basket of warm pita bread. The hummus itself was some of the best I’ve ever had, extraordinarily creamy and subtle in flavor. (I had forgotten, however, that my entrée also came with hummus, so I later wished I’d gotten to try the baba ghanouj.)

We also shared an excellent salad, the fattoush, an enormous mound of romaine lettuce strips and chopped cucumber and tomato, topped with hot, crisp, golden squares of pita bread. The menu called the pita “toasted,” but it was evidently (and deliciously) freshly fried—a perfect complement to the cool, crunchy chopped vegetables tossed with parsley, mint and a sparklingly simple dressing of lemon juice and oil.

My mother tried the falafel sandwich, a folded round of cushy pita bread with creamy sauce and thick, flat discs of tasty falafel. The rounds made it a bit awkward to eat, but it was nonetheless good.

My beef shawarma was a striking contrast to the restrained size of the sandwich. A big oval plate was heaped with small cubes of marinated beef, richly brown with spices, as well as chopped tomatoes, a pool of the hummus and spears of pickle. The beef was chewy—occasionally even a bit tough—but had all the more flavor for that, with an extra boost from the dusky flavors of the spices. Both the scattering of fresh herbs and the sour, salty pickle spears added spark to the dish.

We weren’t offered dessert, but there is tea and Turkish coffee on hand. We eschewed the latter after overhearing the server tell another table how she went into caffeine withdrawal during Ramadan. Perhaps the coffee is what fuels the cafe’s second life as a hookah lounge and dance spot. Our server encouraged us to come back on Friday and Saturday nights, when apparently the place starts to fill up around 10:30 p.m. She said it’s a family place, full of all ages, and that even her aunt comes to dance, but I can’t see how I can make it work. I don’t think my daughter would sleep through a late-night dance party, even though she rewarded our bravery by remaining fast asleep during our tasty dinner in this unexpected spot.