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Laham Bel-ajeen @ Rihab’s in Belmont

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Laham Bel-ajeen @ Rihab’s in Belmont

Melanie Wong | Oct 14, 2003 05:25 AM

My brother and I headed up the peninsula Saturday to follow up on Susan’s lead. I was expecting just a bread baker but the signage offers “hot sandwiches”. We ended up having lunch and buying more to take home at this happy find.

As we walked in, a smiling customer loaded down with a couple dozen bags of bread was on her way out. I smiled at her and said, “We haven’t been here before, I assume you recommend the pita bread?” The woman laughed and said that she was having a party. She said that these were not pita breads as they had no pocket, but she used them in the same way. Then she told me to open a bag and give it a whiff – mmmm, very yeasty and still warm and fragrant from the brick oven. She juggled her bags to pull out one of the Za’ater bread (spread with sumac, oregano and other spices) so I could see her favorite.

At the back of the store where the oven and work area is located, another batch of the plain flat bread rounds, a Laham Bel-ajeen (“meat bread”) and Feta’ar (or fatayer) stuffed with spinach and cheese were just coming out. The exotic aromas of the meat bread were irresistible. We started with that and followed with a lamb kebab plate.

Laham bel-ajeen, $3 – Rather than the thin and almost cracker-like crust of the Armenian lamajun, this had a chewy, blistered, puffy base. This was the same yeasty dough used for the “plain bread” and “feta’ar”. In the flatter, near pizza-like form for this specialty, it has a crisp pebbled bottom side, giving way to chewy pouffiness with irregular tunnels and blisters. The bread alone has such a satisfying texture and flavor, but the savory and pungent topping in just the right proportions kicks it up a notch. A little bit of chopped tomato, nubbins of seasoned ground meat, onions that melt into sweetness that counteracts the tartness of the sumac, and a bit of fresh herbs. Unlike a pizza, this has no cheese, however there is a version topped with only cheese for $2. It’s about the size of a personal pizza and far more interesting and inexpensive. We had half of it while we were waiting for the rest of our lunch, and then ordered another one to take home.

Lamb kebab plate, $6.99 – This is about the most expensive thing on the menu. Chicken or beef are a buck less and even less as a sandwich. She advised us that this would take a little while, but we didn’t mind waiting. The six cubes of lamb were cooked medium-well with nice charry flavors but no other seasonings. The lamb was served on a bed of delicious rice and drizzled with yogurt-onion sauce. I asked whether there was a name for the rice dish, but no, it’s just her own homestyle version deeply flavored with stock and studded with bits of seasoned ground beef. A charbroiled tomato and onion, plus some salad greens topped with chopped fresh tomato (dead ripe and sweet, even the garnishes were special) and parsley completed the plate. I had asked for a sampler of the hummus and babaganoush as a side dish, and we were comped with a small plate spread with the two along with tomato wedges and kalamata olives since it was our first visit. Both were nice and I liked the extra smoky taste of the eggplant.

Dolmas, six for $2.10 – The stuffed graped leaves were tender and small. The minted vegetarian rice was fragrant and lusciously soft after 10 seconds in the microwave at home to take the chill off.

Baklava, 75¢ - Made with ground pistachios, this is not super buttery or oily. The layers of filo are well-expanded and crackly, not gummy. It is less sweet than other versions I’ve had and the flavor of the nuts comes through more strongly.

Birrell, $1 – A canned non-alcoholic malt beverage with a strong hoppy component.

There’s one small table with two pairs of mismatched chairs. I enjoyed eating on premise, where we could observe what the steady stream of customers ordered and keep adding to our own purchases. Even better was inhaling the scent of fresh baked breads, accompanied by the gentle rhythmic pat, pat, pat of skilled hands shaping dough. At one point, my brother mused that if we had grown up in an Arabic household, the sounds and scents would surely make us nostalgic for our mother baking bread in the morning. This did feel very much like sitting in a family member’s kitchen and having her surprise us with lovingly homemade treats.

In addition to the prepared foods, the deli and market carries feta cheese, Lebanese yogurt and lebna, pickles, a variety of spices and canned goods from various Middle Eastern countries, four types of Basmati rice, henna and other toiletries, and candies and confections. I was fascinated by a utensil called “the magic spade” which is a cutting tool for reaming out whole veggies to be stuffed that this cuisine is so fond of.

Rihab’s has been in business for seven years and specializes in Iraqi cuisine. Some of the other offerings include Bosnian bread, falafel, shawerma beef or chicken, kuffta beef, kebba, tabouleh, foul mudamas, feta’ar with various fillings, and pizza. It was suggested that we call our order ahead next time. A number of items are listed on the catering menu that require 48 hours advance notice – chicken or beef mackloba (maqluba), kushari, booreq, lepina bread, kushk, and homemade basterma (basturma).

We loved everything we tried. Thanks for the tip!

Rihab’s Bakery, Deli & Market
1504 El Camino Real
Belmont
650-631-3739
Tues-Sat, 9am-6pm
Lunch 11am-3pm

P.S. As a side note, William was sad to see that the cheesesteak place across the street was now a Quiznos. With sandwiches on the wonderful freshly baked bread available at Rihab's, you'd have to be nuts to go to Quiznos instead.

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