By Frank Sabatini Jr.
As with most commercial buffets, the food is mediocre, if not lousy, and I invariably get caught in line between a slowpoke in front of me and an aggressive raven breathing down my neck from behind.
In comparison, my recent experience at the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at Sufi Mediterranean Cuisine revealed some winning dishes, and without any jam-ups or arms reaching over mine as I thrice sailed down the tread.
The midday spread is offered daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and features about 25 items of Persian persuasion, starting with salads, hummus, baba ganoush, maast o’khiar (yogurt with cucumber and mint), and soups — one of them with a delectable pomegranate pottage fortified with rice and spinach.
They verge into a long row of chafing dishes containing various Middle Eastern meat and vegetarian stews, plus an abundance of chicken and ground beef kabobs — all ending unexpectedly with broiled chicken wings and spaghetti in meat sauce. The latter appeared too pedestrian to bother sampling. But the wings with their subtle speckling of sumac were moist and savory, especially when dipping them into a plop of cool maast o’khiar I had on my plate.
With tax, the buffet costs about $17, although on Sundays it’s almost $10 more because extra dishes are added to the lineup, with some featuring lamb.
Bread is a foundation of Persian meals, particularly barbari, a thick flatbread that pairs adoringly to tabbouleh salad or the herbed feta cheese contained on this buffet.
Unfortunately, the only bread in the offing was pita, which had the dull flavor and chewy texture of commercial brands. But with the support of robust, smoky baba ganoush and the creaminess of the fleecy feta, I came to accept it.
Gormeh sabzi is a stew of concentrated herbs, red beans, and large chunks of inexpensive beef that turns as soft as pot roast from extended cooking. Every spoonful was lovable.
I skipped over the vegetarian squash stew parked alongside and B-lined to the kabobs. The promise of eating them lawlessly is what lured me here in the first place.
The orange-tinted chicken kabobs resembled those at Bandar, my favorite Persian restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Made with strips of yogurt-marinated breast meat, they’re woven into sizable balls and seasoned with lemon and olive oil. These weren’t as juicy, but they had me returning for seconds nonetheless.
The ground beef kabobs were plain in appearance, but won me over with their herby, onion-y flavor and finely ground texture. Like Turkish kafta, they were lean and beautifully seasoned, tasting all the better when paired with Sufi’s extra-creamy hummus.
On the same plate, I added a plop of adas polo combining basmati rice with lentils and raisins, and in this case, revealing occasional pieces of dark cherries. In Iranian households, it’s the requisite sidekick for chicken, beef or lamb.
Sufi is an enormous restaurant tailored for live musicians and belly dancers on weekend evenings. Situated in the Balboa Mesa Shopping Center, its design elements encompass bell-shaped arches, curvy lattice works, and crystal chandeliers of the gaudy sort, resulting in an atmosphere where ancient Persia meets 1980s Las Vegas.
To its left is a Turkish bakery, which makes some of the buffet’s desserts such as mini melt-in-your mouth Napoleans topped with whipped, airy custard. Next door on the right is Balboa International Market, where imported grocery goods from Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries abound.
Indeed, a visit to Sufi isn’t complete without wandering through the market’s aisles and grazing past its deli cases and selection of hot foods for carry out — just in case the hankering for another exotic meal resurfaces at dinnertime.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.