Often the first city that comes to mind when we think East County, El Cajon has developed into one of our region’s more complex communities. On the one hand, “The Big Box” is characterized by classic cars cruising its Main Street every Wednesday night, and by its pride in hometown sports heroes, including auto racing icon Jimmie Johnson, and Padres ace Joe Musgrove.
On the other, thanks to a three-decade influx of Middle Eastern immigration, its box-shaped valley has earned a newer nickname: “Little Baghdad.” An estimated 30 percent of its 105,000 residents hail from abroad, led by Chaldean and Arab Iraqis, followed by more recent thousands fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
Their contributions have transformed the suburban valley into San Diego’s epicenter for Middle Eastern cuisine. Not every El Cajon restaurant hails from this tradition, but thanks in large part to those that do, there’s never been a better time to eat here.
Tekka at Ali Babba
For going on 20 years, this Arabian Nights-inspired family restaurant has introduced Iraqi fare ranging from lamb shank quzi to lamb offal pacha. But Ali Baba’s standouts are also its most accessible dishes: beef, chicken, and sumptuous lamb kababs, which are long strips of seasoned ground meat. The charcoal-grilled skewers featuring hunks of meat go by the name tekka.
Masgoof at Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill
Despite the name, the modest Masgoof at Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill eatery wins its fans by roasting fish and fowl in a clay tandoor oven, in particular the Iraqi whole fish preparation, masgoof. In the style of San Diego’s beloved fish markets, customers may peruse a glass counter filled with fish and decide which will wind up on their plates. Popular choices include red snapper and striped bass, but it’s worth remembering the word Nahrain translates to “two rivers.” For freshwater fish traditionally associated with the Tigris and Euphrates, choose carp.
Makkliyah at Mal Al Sham: The Taste Of Damascus
This Syrian kitchen at Mal Al Sham: The Taste Of Damascus is dominated by a pair of shawerma rotisseries, and skewered meats on the menu likewise reinforce the link between Arab and Mediterranean cuisines. For something more distinctly Syrian, look to the kibbeh makkliyah: fried dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground beef and crushed walnuts. Better yet, if you have 30 minutes to spare, wait on the grilled version: kibbeh mashweeyeh.
Salad at Crafted Greens
It’s not al halal in El Cajon. This scratch kitchen at Crafted Greens on Jamacha Road embraces modern terms such as grass-fed, organic, free-range, and sustainable. That said, the keys to Crafted Greens’ success are its myriad salads, flatbreads and hot sandwiches loaded with house-made dressings and vibrant produce sourced from California farms.
Baklava Taco at Al Sultan Baklava
Not to be confused with downtown El Cajon’s stylish baklava bakery Sultan Baklava, Al Sultan sits farther east, just off Jamacha Road. This Turkish dessert specialist offers little to look at beyond bare walls, meaning all eyes are on its rich phyllo-dough pastries, decadently soaked in honey and simple syrup, stuffed with ground nuts, and perhaps drizzled with chocolate.
Phở at Grandpa Táo Kitchen
Another of El Cajon’s refugee populations recently scored a win with his new restaurant devoted to Vietnamese fare, alongside a limited assortment of sushi. But reason number one to pay attention is Grandpa Táo Kitchen‘s phở menu. Whether based in chicken or beef stock, they’re made fragrant thanks to long hours steeped with clove, onions, and star anise—and the best noodles east of the 15.