As a cultural anthropologist, I strongly believe in the concept of cultural relativism—the idea that no culture is “better” than any other culture. While it’s true you can’t compare the “better-ness” of one culture over another, you can compare the food—and I’ve decided that Middle Eastern food, also sometimes called Mediterranean food, simply rocks.
And it especially rocks at Riverside’s La Sajj Café.
La Sajj is owned by Nabih Nasserdeen, perhaps the busiest man in the Inland Empire. A mortgage broker and retail chain store owner, he bought the restaurant near the Galleria at Tyler Mall from a friend because he wanted to see it be successful. He’s improved it during the eight months he’s owned it, with the goal of creating a place where you can get genuine Lebanese tastes. I don’t know a genuine Lebanese taste from my husband’s cooking, but I can tell you the food at La Sajj is really good.
Restaurants in Lebanon, Nabih says, are rated by their meze, or appetizers. These appetizers are similar to Spanish tapas, in that you can easily make an entire meal of them over the course of an hour or two. The added advantage is that you can taste a bunch of things without really committing to any one thing. As someone on her third marriage, I appreciate that flexibility.
Since Lebanese restaurants are known for their meze, start there. No Middle Eastern place is complete without hummus, and La Sajj makes some of the best. Served with warm pita bread, it’s almost a meal in itself.
Shankleesh is an aged hard sharp goat cheese crumbled with chopped fresh onions and tomatoes and served in an olive oil. The cheese has a strong flavor that’s wonderfully offset by the onion and the oil. The texture of the hard cheese crumbles is interesting after it’s been mixed in the oil. The outside gets soft and the inside stays hard. (I like to wrap it in bread and spoon on a little hummus—wonderful.)
I’m a big fan of sausages from any cuisine, but I’m especially fond of sujuk. This rather hard sausage is sliced thin, and served in the warm olive oil in which it’s cooked. The flavor is similar to chorizo, but the texture and body of the sausage is entirely different.
If you like tabbouleh or baba gahnnouj, both standard Middle Eastern dishes (and vegetarian), you’ll enjoy them at La Sajj. I should like them—both have yummy ingredients that I like in other dishes—but I can’t talk about these dishes from personal experience. My husband reports they’re done very well.
If you want to commit to a meal, you have options. The shawarma beef and chicken entrees are very tasty—marinated slow-roasted beef or chicken served with hummus, rice or fries, and a salad. I recommend the half serving, unless you’re sharing with someone else. The full-size meals are huge.
Nabih tries to have a different dessert every day, but on Sunday and Wednesday, you can get fresh kenafe, the most amazing dessert in the IE. Kenafe is sweet white cheese, melted between two barely perceptible layers of semolina crust, and drizzled with a syrup—eat it right away, while it’s warm. Because it’s cheese, the texture is stretchy and sort of chewy. It tastes like candy, but in a cheese-ish sort of way.
A great time to go to La Sajj is during happy hour, weeknights from 4 to 7 pm. Friday and Saturday nights are also good times—sometimes they have a live DJ and dancing, or a live band playing Middle Eastern music with a rhythm your body wants to move to.
And on all of these evenings, you can smoke a hookah on the patio. Although with the kenafe, I’m not sure why you would.
La Sajj Café, 10170 Indiana Ave., Riverside, (951) 688-7255.