As a food blogger, I often get asked what my favorite restaurant is. And instead of coming up with one intelligent answer, I freeze and stumble as if aliens came and stole my brain. "Ummm, yeah, like it's hard to name just one, you know. Um, this place is good; they have blah, blah, blah. Oh, and this place is really yummy too, like they have this stuff that's to die for. Oh yeah, and you haaaaave to go to this place 'cause blah, blah, blah."
Because of this, I'm pretty sure I've lost some cred with people as a passionate and knowledgeable food blogger and just became known as "that dumb ho." But really now, how does one choose just one favorite restaurant when we have so many wonderful and extremely diverse choices here in the southland?
I do have several restaurants on the top of my list, and the restaurant of the moment usually depends on my mood, hormonal cycle or current financial situation. If I had to pick an all time fave, though, I'd have to consider the criteria a little more carefully.
First criteria would have to be good food. (Like duh, right?)
Second criteria would be good value. Because I'm not rich and I like my hard earned dollar to go as far as it can.
Third criteria would be service and atmosphere. Though nice, I'm not talking waiting-on-you-hand-and-foot kind of service and I'm not talking award-winning designer decor kind of atmosphere either. I'm talking the kind of service and atmosphere that make you feel right at home and where the staff is proud of their food. I could care less if your sleek leather banquettes were imported from Italy.
Fourth criteria would be consistency. Everyone's entitled to an off day. But an off day every other day is not a favorite of mine, restaurants or otherwise.
Fifth criteria would be some kind of personal significance, like having had some great times or life changing events occur at that particular eatery. Totally subjective, I know, but that's what this whole thing is about, n'est-ce pas?
So that being said, and after some thought, I am proud to announce that my favorite restaurant is Skaf's Grill in North Hollywood!
When I started my old gig over in the 818, I never in a million years thought that I'd come to love a place at the seedy 7-Eleven strip mall on the corner where we sometimes went to buy our lotto tickets. I never knew Skaf's even existed until a fellow food-loving coworker told me about it and raved about their hummus. So on one smoggy, hazy afternoon sometime circa 2004, my coworkers and I made the five minute pilgrimage on foot in search of this heavenly hummus.
One would hardly think that this small, no frills space, nestled between a generi-yaki Japanese restaurant and a Twelve Step recovery center, and whose decor is pretty much limited to a few fading posters of Lebanon, has anything going for it in the atmosphere department. At least that's what I thought the first time I entered Skaf's. But after seeing and hearing owner Sam Skaf and his sons talking about their food with such pride, and after seeing how much they appreciate their customers, I felt more and more at home each time I returned (which was, by the way, at least once a week every week until I left that company). It's places like Skaf's that have taught me that great atmosphere is not about how stylish a restaurant's decor is or how prim and proper the front of house and waitstaff are. It's about making me feel so welcome that I feel like I'm having a meal at a friend's house. It's about people remembering your name and what your favorite dishes are. It's about people being happy when you bring your friends and family there for the first time and then remembering their names and what their favorite dishes are.
While I've had close-to-euphoric experiences with chichi tasting menus with wine pairings and all that jazz, there's just something missing there in the comfort department. Skaf's, on the other hand, serves the kind of simple, comforting stuff that qualifies for Last Meal status.
Each of Skaf's entrees come with hummus, pita, and cabbage salad, which to me, are just as good as the entrees themselves. I've had friends make their whole meal out of the hummus, pita and cabbage salad if that tells you anything. Their hummus, in my opinion, is a work of art: little glistening pools of oil and brightly colored dots of paprika sit atop a velvety garbanzo and tahini canvas. Waiting for my entree is always a double-fisting ordeal: scoop up hummus with a piece of freshly grilled pita with one hand, eat the crunchy, deliciously garlicky and lemony cabbage salad with the other. If I happen to add on their delicious babaganoush, my pre-entree dining experience takes a little bit more coordination, but is well worth the effort.
Skaf's always has a handful of daily specials that you can either find on the dry-erase board behind the counter, but usually it's Mr. Skaf himself who will tell you what specials he's serving up that day. If you've ever had the chance to have him tell you about his daily specials, you'll be able to tell how much pride he has in his food. But it sometimes makes me feel guilty because as tasty as his specials are, I'm there for the regular menu items of kabobs and grilled meats. "They are delicious," he said of his daily specials with his usual enthusiasm one day. "Oh, I'm sure they are," I replied, feeling guilty, "but I'm going to order my favorite." To which he said, "I know you like the kebab! After all, we are Skaf's Grill."
Their beef and lamb shish kebabs' nicely charred exterior gives way to a tender, slightly pink interior. An all time favorite of mine, kafta kebab, is a wonderful mixture of ground beef, onion, parsley, mint and other spices shaped into a log and grilled. My favorite thing to do with kafta kebab is break up the bits of meat and eat it with the fluffy basmati rice that's been dusted with lemony sumac--so good! If spit-roasted meat is what's floating your boat, Skaf's has some kick- ass chicken and beef shawerma that you can have either in plate form with rice & the works or in a pita sandwich.
And where in most restaurants the chicken dishes leave a little something to be desired, the Shish Tawook at Skaf's proves that chicken--and white meat chicken for that matter--can be anything but boring. These chunks of chicken that have been partying in yogurt, garlic and spices come out super moist after being grilled; a nicely charred exterior adds some texture and depth. What's even better is that your order of shish tawook at Skaf's always comes with a little cup of their homemade garlic sauce which, in my opinion, rivals that well known chicken/garlic sauce chain we've all been too. Smear some of this potent white paste on your shish tawook and you've got heaven on a stick. Usually though, I get my shish tawook via Skaf's Combo Grill plate which for about thirteen bucks gets you one shish tawook skewer, one kafta skewer and one beef shish kebab skewer along with all the other goodies like basmati rice, a nicely charred tomato, their heavenly hummus and pita, and their refreshingly tangy cabbage salad. It's alot of food which I can sometimes finish in one sitting, but it's usually enough food for two meals. And trust me, I am very, very possessive of those leftovers. Now how's that for good value?
There used to be a company right around the intersection of Laurel Canyon and Oxnard which was acquired by a bigger powerhouse and sadly, is no longer there. I would say that I learned much of what I know today career-wise at that company, and more importantly, I met some awesome people there who I am good friends with to this day. It was major good times, and you bet your ass that many of those good times were spent over lunch at Skaf's. We bitched, we ate, we ranted, we craved, we pondered life, we laughed our asses off. Sometimes, despite knowing that we had to get back to the office, we would defiantly order a pot of Lebanese coffee which Sam would serve to us in the most interesting long handled pot and demitasse cups. It's a strong, muddy brew that tastes even better paired with some mamoul--slightly dry in texture and subtley sweet Lebanese cookies filled with dates, walnuts, or pistachios--and will give you a nice, even stream of energy throughout the day. It's not your cheap huge-energy-jolt-that-sends-you-crashing-down-an-hour-later-crap...this is quality stuff. The minutes would tick away as my friends and I sipped our coffee, whining about not wanting to go back to the office but having what were probably the most fun, relaxed and carefree times in our professional lives.
On a recent visit to Skaf's, I introduced my ten month old baby boy to Mr. Skaf, who being so happy to meet him, pat my son on the head with a smile and said, "So nice to meet you! You are going to be a future customer!" It was such a warm gesture, but I have to say that Sam Skaf was wrong. Judging by how much my boy was loving the bits of shish tawook and pita I fed him, I'd say he's already a customer.
6008 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91606
(Skaf's has a second location in Glendale at 367 N. Chevy Chase #A, though funny enough, I've never been there. My heart--and stomach--belong to North Hollywood. I'm sure it's excellent though.)
Also, read my previous posts about Skaf's from Daily Gluttony!
P.S. I was thinking of making this a meme, but was too freaking lazy. So I'm opening it up to you if you care to participate: leave a comment or write a post about what your favorite restaurant is!