I stand staring up at the big menu hung above the counter at Mawadda Cafe.Owner Rami Al-Jebori stands on the other side of the counter, staring at me.I say, "Uh..."Al-Jebori waits with a pen in his hand.I say, "OK, um..."There is no one in line behind me; no one hurrying me. On this warm afternoon in Hillman City, there is only one other customer at Mawadda: a cabbie sitting at the high counter by the windows, reading a tiny book and sipping a bottle of lassi.I'm not confused. Contrary to how it might appear, I'm not stricken with indecision. This is my second time here, and I know exactly what I want. But standing slack-jawed and stupid before the overblown menu, with its pictures of shawarma and kabob and rice tinted an unnatural, atomic yellow by the sun, I am momentarily stunned by the smell of the tiny, bunker-ish kitchen in the center of the restaurant. I'm light-headed from it—a little bit high on the combined odors of garlic and marinade, fresh pita, hummus and oil, red onions under the blade of a kitchen knife, smoke from the broiler, and a million competing spices. My eyes flutter as I breathe in this shifting instant, then the next: an entire history of men and cuisine and motion told in a breath of cumin, turmeric, cardamom, and char.I want gyros—beautiful, thin-cut slabs of spiced lamb, ground and compressed, crisp around the edges and tasting of a dozen spices, with a bucket of Al-Jebori's creamy garlic sauce on the side. I'd had the gyros here a couple days ago, and after getting my first taste had crouched over the plate like some kind of feral creature, picking them up with my fingers, folding them into torn bits of pita, and eating them with a fixity of attention generally reserved for far less public displays of love and hunger. This time through, I told myself, I need to order more—to order differently, to get a sense of the depth and breadth of Mawadda's menu: shawarma, kebab, maybe a little falafel (because it is supposed to be so good—the best in the state), a slice of baklava from the tray of it under glass, bleeding oil and honey onto wax paper. The lamb kabobs look really good. There is tzatziki sauce, just made, sitting out on the cutting board. Al-Jebori waits with a serene patience and half a smile on his face."Gyros plate," I say. "Number 13. With an extra side of garlic sauce."Dammit—did it again.Those of us who dine as true enthusiasts and choose where we eat for reasons more complex than just the intake of fuel have become adept at navigating a world of mixed messages and crossed signals, where a restaurant can be dubbed the BEST THING EVER and the worst thing ever, all in the space of a few words. But there are still more primeval and old-fashioned ways to find the best restaurants and hunt up the most authentic flavors of a hundred distant homes—tricks that one develops over the years and holds to like ancient magic.When looking for Mexican food, there's the Piñata Principle: Find a neighborhood that looks promising, count the number of places selling piñatas, try to triangulate an area of maximum piñata density, and then eat tacos or tortas smack in the middle of that area. Finding good dim sum requires less geometry; the wise gastronaut just drives around likely neighborhoods on a Sunday morning and looks for the lines. As for French food, I look online for whatever restaurant is most beloved by the local foodistas and avoid it like it was on fire.I found Mawadda by counting the cabs parked on the side street that runs beside the strip mall it calls home. My first time through was a three-cabbie day. I knew right then—before even walking in the door—that it was going to be good.What I didn't know was how good. That was the surprise. Al-Jebori stood in the kitchen, he and one other cook assembling and wrapping massive shawarma sandwiches for the drivers who waited, lingering at the tables or by the door. My first time, I ordered broadly: platters of chicken kabob over rice turned yellow by turmeric and the gyros that would haunt me later, long gone from the restaurant but still tasting the grease on my lips and tongue. I asked for basha and got a massive plate of more shaved gyro meat, marinated cubes of lamb dressed in tiny flecks of herb and spice, and chicken breast cut roughly into a hash and mixed with soft onions, cumin, more turmeric, and more garlic. I ordered by number, off the hung menu that's actually meant to help guide the take-out trade, then added on, asking for beef sambosa and Greek fries with feta and garlic sauce, like a Mediterranean poutine.Sitting in the 25-seat dining room, I sipped spicy chai tea from the pot always kept warm by the counter—a heady, sharp blend, rich with cinnamon and cream, then spiked with mint and clove that stings like sweet lightning. It is so unlike the nutless faux chai sold all over the place these days as to be like a completely different beverage—the true flavor of something that had to be blunted, sugared, and robbed of its best properties before it could find a place among the soy lattes and tall Americanos of suburban coffee shops.Al-Jebori brought salads (chopped romaine and raw red onion topped with creamy garlic sauce in lieu of some dull dressing), then the plates as they came up—sambosas first, like small envelopes of crisp baked dough around a filling of ground beef flecked with bits of red chile; then fries; then rice and pita and meat in glorious profusion. The lamb was tender and chewy and deeply flavored, each tiny piece a complex play of smoke, fat, salt, and char. The chicken was less impressive, though possibly only by comparison. And the gyros, well...Someday, years from now, once I've become a regular at Al-Jebori's small cafe and he no longer has to wonder what I'm hungry for as we stand there looking at each other across the counter, maybe we will talk about this: the moment I fell for his gyros and realized I could not happily live long without them. We'll laugh about it, both older and fatter and grayer. But for now, he just asks if we need anything to drink, gesturing at the free-standing cooler full of Cokes and lassi, weird minted yogurt drinks and bottles of water."Enjoy," he says. "Please."That first time through, at the end of the meal, the other cook working alongside Al-Jebori had asked if we'd need boxes to take our leftovers home. I remember looking at the plates that had been cleaned of everything but the rice and wiped down with scraps of pita, and laughing."No," I'd said. "I think we're OK."I hadn't loved the chicken kebab that first time, but hadn't disliked it either. I'd eaten it all, but nothing could compare with the lamb, gyros, sambosas, and everything else. The only thing I hadn't liked was the rice. It was pretty, sure, but also dry and flavorless—nothing more than bedding for the meats.My second time, as I sat at the high counter, looking through the front windows across the cracked and slanted pavement of the parking lot, breathing in the odors of a cuisine that hasn't changed appreciably in hundreds of years, that hinges completely on the use and reuse of maybe a dozen disparate ingredients (lamb, chickpeas, rice, onion, chickpeas, garlic, turmeric, oil, and chickpeas), I knew I would have to come back. Sitting there, I ate my gyros with no less single-mindedness than I had the first time around, while the low strains of Middle Eastern pop leaked out of hidden speakers and the cab drivers came and went with their enormous sandwiches. Next door to Mawadda is an all-purpose Middle Eastern bodega selling phone cards and soda and God only knows what else, and periodically the guy working behind the counter came in, had a few words with Al-Jebori in a language I don't speak, then wandered out. Once they laughed. Mostly they scowled. I haven't the foggiest clue what was going on, and I didn't honestly care. What mattered to me was only the way the thin pieces of gyro meat had gotten all crackly and crisp and the thick ones had remained as tender as eating mouthfuls of butter; how my fingertips had gotten slick from the grease, and the way I'd started to use my pita as a napkin.I come back the next day. There are no cab drivers; this time, the floor is about half-full. Three years in business, and while Mawadda is never line-out-the-door busy, neither is it ever empty. But, following their noses, the cabs, and the advice of friends, enough people have found this small cafe to keep the kitchen busy, baking baklava (sweet but not sickeningly so, heavy on the nuts, with a nice, savory weight) and making fat wrap sandwiches of falafel (which, as it turns out, really is excellent: dry but not dusty, crisp on the outside and warm and soft within, smeared with garlic sauce, and dressed with lettuce, tomato, and red onion) and a few Italian dishes jammed weirdly onto the unbalanced Mediterranean menu.Mawadda offers chicken parmesan, served with garlic bread that is just a slice of toasted white bread rubbed with garlic and spread with butter. There's fettucine alfredo and spaghetti with meat sauce—the red gravy studded with ground lamb, tomatoey-sweet and containing dim hints of spices that Al-Jebori couldn't help but add.I have a plan. In the car on my way here for my third visit, I'd been practicing my order so that I wouldn't get distracted again. So I wouldn't fold to temptation and do nothing but eat more gyros. I've decided to get take-out—to simply walk up to the counter, speak slowly and clearly, then walk out again.Stepping up, Al-Jebori recognizes me, I think; there's some hint of understanding as he welcomes me and nods to the pot of chai on its table beside the counter."Gyros plate," I say. "Number 13. Extra garlic sauce."I am weak, hopelessly weak. But as I find a seat among the few available and sink into it, losing myself once more in the sting of the chai and the intoxicating smell of Al-Jebori's kitchen as he puts my order together, I do not lose hope. I may be weak. I may be powerless in the face of Mawadda's gyros. But I am resigned now to my own helplessness and appetite.All this means is I'm going to have to come back firstname.lastname@example.orgPrice Check
Mawadda Cafe 4433 S. Graham St., 760-0911, mawaddacafe.com. Daily, lunch and dinner.
Chicken kabob $9.99
Gyros plate $13.99