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Shafaa Halal Foods ~ Hawthorne

1:50 PM PST on February 6, 2007

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Shafaa Halal Foods ~ 12211 Hawthorne Blvd. Hawthorne, CA 90250 ~ (310) 675-3400 (TACO Guide)

Some of the tastiest food comes from some of the most unkempt places. Shafaa Turkish restaurant bucks this trend. They invested some time and care in their recipes, just as they have invested some serious bucks in the decor and the building itself. The outside presents the streetside viewer with intricate arabesque design on the columns, arches, and other surfaces of the facade.

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Inside, the one encounters walls draped in fabric, censers and tassels hanging from the ceilings and walls, small cut-glass (or is it Lucite?) chandeliers, fringed bolsters and pillows in some of the booths. You know how much it probably cost to flameproof all of that fabric hanging on the walls? I assume it is flameproofed, per municipal codes. To make a long story short, this place is nicer that most places with comparable menu prices.

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With my partner in tasting (and other things) at my side, I started off with a hummus and pita bread appetizer. I have considered Turkish humus to be the best of all hummi when I became a regular at a Turkish café that opened up in my neighborhood when I was in college. I found it to be spicier, creamier, and thicker then humus typically encountered. I returned a few years later and the place was closed, and I have searched for a humus that will be the equal of the one I found there. The hummus at Shafaa was good, but it cannot compete with the hummus that I remember, the hummus that has probably become idealized in my mind. I paraphrase Paul Simon's song, Kodachrome: "If you took all of the Turkish humus chicken pitas I ate in college/ and brought 'em altogether for one night/ you know they'd never match my sweet imagination/ everything tastes worse in black and white."

For the entree, we did have more humus by selecting the vegetable combo to share, and beef kabobs to share. I had milk tea, she had Turkish mint tea.

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I love tabouli, and this one was spiced up by the addition of scallions into the mix. I've never had it that way before, and it was different, although whereas the heavy parsley content of tabouli typically sweetens the breath, the breath was not-so-sweet after a few scalliony bites. But, sweet breath was not really part of the equation any more after a taking a few samples of the very garlicky baba ghanoush. Watch out for the big chunks of garlic clove mixed in there! The dolmas were moist throughout and flavorful. The only thing that didn't quite live up to it's promise was the falafel, which seemed like it might have been fried a bit too long and was a bit dry.

The beef kabobs were awesome. Juicy and super tender, I'd love to know what they marinated them in. There was definitely a taste of something a bit sweet, my tasting companion said maybe orange zest. The rice was awesome, too: perfect consistency, it had a very subtle sweet seasoning too it. Subtle; I've definitely been to some Middle Eastern or South Asian places where the savory rice is sweetened too much, or the cinnamon or raison that is used is too dominant, but this was perfect, and made the exact spices used hard to discern, at least for my rather amateur palate. Allspice, perhaps?

Everything was so pleasing we had to hit up the desserts, of which two were available: baklava and katayif. Neither of them seem super-fresh, but they were both sweet and good.

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This place definitely has the air of a hidden gem. Some of the parts of the experience reminded me of genuinely being in a foreign country: communication with the waitress wasn't always smooth and complete, due to a bit of lack of language mastery. And while take out was an option, the lack of a take out menu revealed a certain lack of organization. The place itself wasn't too busy, but those people that were there seemed to be in the know. There were some older women in hijabs, couples on dates reminiscing about birthplaces in Arab countries, African Americans wearing kufi skullcaps and flowing kaftans over jeans and Timberland boots. I heard that a man who came with his wife and three kids was a local imam - there is a community Islamic Center set off from the street that shares a parking lot with Shaffa, but I gotta think that all of these people wouldn't patronize the restaurant unless they felt it was authentic and consistently tasty.

Like so many ethnic restaurants, there is also a small selection of groceries from the appropriate motherland. Shafaa is no exception, and one can find a small rack of bagged pitas, Turkish tea, sardines, and a few other sundry consumables. I found a Moroccan hot sauce in a can there called harissa; I never (knowingly) tried it before, so of course I had to buy it and bring it home.

When you sit down at a table at Shafaa, you might notice the red ground red pepper replacing the black pepper in its shaker, announcing that you've arrived to a new realm of taste. All of this great food, can of hot sauce included, set me back $24.32.

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