As good as it gets
Skaf's Lebanese cuisine offers a host of must-try dishes
By Erica Wayne 03/29/2012
Have you heard of Skaf’s? We hadn’t until our West Pasadena friends told us we had to try it and drove us through Eagle Rock into Glendale along Colorado Boulevard (it becomes Colorado Street at the border) with a hard right onto Chevy Chase. There, a few blocks north, practically in the shadow of the 134 Freeway, nestled one of the best Lebanese restaurants to be found in our neck of the woods.
Skaf’s relies on food quality rather than ambiance. The dining room is a simple rectangle with basic furnishings and, during most dining hours, a full house of about 40 happy customers polishing off foul (a delightful warm dip of fava beans mixed with plenty of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil served at Skaf’s with a mixed vegetable plate) and other delectable dishes.
I could easily make an entire meal from the cold and hot appetizers and salads, but there are far too many (more than 20) to order as an individual. Plus, that evening, there was no way to gain the acquiescence of the other three party members, all sworn carnivores who had their eyes and bellies fixated on shish kebab ($13.95), lamb kebab ($14.95) and chicken shawarma ($11.95).
But no objection was raised to ordering generous plates of baba ghannouj (roasted eggplant mixed with sesame sauce, garlic and lemon juice - $6.50), mouhammara (a spicy dip prepared with crushed walnuts, red pepper paste, pomegranate juice and olive oil - $6.95) tabbouli (chopped Italian parsley mixed with tomatoes, bulgar, onions, lemon juice, mint and olive oil - $6.95), since our friends were already addicted to them.
A stack of warm pita bread accompanied the starters which, by the time we’d tucked in, made our entrees almost superfluous, since there was no doubt most of the food would be heading home to serve as the next night’s supper. Nevertheless, order we did. And, surprisingly enough, by the time we were finished our meal, far less excess than I’d expected made it into our take-out containers.
I was the only undecided diner. Several hot appetizers were tempting: kibbeh (lean ground beef balls mixed with bulgar, spiced with cumin, garlic, onions and pine nuts and fried - $1.85 apiece), falafel (fava and garbanzo balls, mixed with herbs and spices and fried - $5.95 for four with veggies and sesame sauce), the above-mentioned foul ($6.95), fried cheese rolls ($1.85 apiece) and frog legs (pan-seared with lemon juice, garlic, spices and fresh cilantro - $9.95).
Putting off these choices for second and third visits, I settled on a vegetarian combo (tabbouli, baba ghannouj, three falafel and sesame sauce - $10.95). Why, you may ask, duplicate two of the dips we’d started with? Because they were so wonderful: the eggplant smoky, the tabbouli aromatic with mint, lemon and onion. Hummus (crushed garbanzos mixed with sesame, garlic and lemon), pickles and Skaf’s tangy, chunky chopped cabbage salad accompany all entrees.
The main draws for the shawarma fan were not only the fragrant marinade in which the chicken had been bathed before grilling, but the house-made garlic spread, even better, he swore, than Zankou’s. The shish kebab was described on the menu as “tender chunks of grilled ribeye,” and damned if it wasn’t! We’ve been burned way too often by tough and overcooked kebabs, but Skaf’s beef, and their lamb, was tender and medium rare.
I adore falafel (having lived on almost nothing else one long ago summer in Jerusalem) and consider myself an aficionado, if not an expert. In my humble opinion, Skaf’s are among the best I’ve ever tasted. Fried, yes; greasy, absolutely not. They’re perfectly seasoned with plenty of cumin and onion, and the addition of fava beans somehow makes them lighter in texture and less dry. Even the single leftover I nuked the next day for lunch maintained its crunch and overall superiority.
Skaf’s has daily specials. We were there on a Friday, when the most expensive menu item (whole fried fish - $25.95) is available. The price seemed a bit high, considering that nothing else is more than $17. But it’s obviously popular. I counted at least 15 platters in front of glowing diners. Perhaps not quite as grand as Shiro’s or Parkway’s catfish, which dwarf their plates, these Mediterranean sea bass are still impressive.
Skaf’s is nearly perfect, with just a few minor flaws. We tried the grape leaves (stuffed with rice, olive oil, vegetables and spices – six for $6.95) and found them oddly bland. More important, Skaf’s doesn’t serve alcohol. My husband almost requires beer with dinners out, and his disappointment was real. Nevertheless, he agreed that the food was well worth an occasional teetotaler’s meal.
Skaf’s dessert list is limited to two items: baklawa ($1.50) or ashta (Lebanese clotted cream) served with bananas, honey and crushed pistachios - $6.95, a must-try and must-share dish! On the way home, our friends showed us an unexpected bonus to dining at Skaf’s. As we turned back onto Colorado Street, the East Glendale branch of the Baklava Factory beckoned. Inside, sold by the pound, were all the variants on Middle Eastern pastries you could want if (unlikely) you had any room for sweets once you’d left Skaf’s. Of course, there’s always tomorrow! n