Before my visit to El Fishawy, the new Egyptian restaurant in Old Town Tustin, I did my homework. On Yelp, I found pictures of its menu, and since it provided no descriptions, I started Googling all of the dishes. I needed to know the differences in the entrées I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want to be that guy who asks, “What is this?” and, “What is that?” The last time I went to an Egyptian restaurant unprepared, I frustrated the waitress when I peppered her with questions she wasn’t in the mood to answer.
I learned from that experience. But from other visits, I also knew that Egyptian restaurants are almost always hookah bars. Because state laws ban indoor smoking, Egyptian restaurant owners often invest all of their money, time and effort into making their patios as nice as possible.
At El Fishawy, the patio was sheltered under a sloping awning. The seats in this area were plush, involving an excess of red seat cushions. Ornate cages that held candles were on every table. Throughout the space, vases of flowers radiated figurative warmth while gas heaters did it literally. But since it was freezing and wet the night of my visit, I shunned the patio.
Other than a few Thomas Kinkade prints that aren’t so much hung as they are stored, the indoor space is barren. El Fishawy claimed the building from the previous tenant, a Persian restaurant called Morey’s Place. I mention this because it is what the LED billboard outside still flashes. It’s been four months since the new owners took over, so I can only assume that no one has figured out how to reset the sign.
I do not, however, understand why I was handed a Morey’s Place menu along with El Fishawy’s when I sat down. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of dishes, but I knew better than to pry. My waitress resembled a high schooler and was already having trouble answering my question of what exactly was included in the appetizer sampler plate. She excused herself, then returned to recite from her notepad that it contained hummus, muttabbal (eggplant dip), four stuffed grape leaves, three falafel and tabouleh (parsley salad). I said I’d take it.
But when I asked her to confirm what I understood the main course of fatta beef to be, she struggled. She tried to explain that it was a grilled meat dish similar to the kebabs and not the soupy dish that a Google search told me earlier. I ordered it anyway.
After a beat, the cashier, a man of about 30, came back and clarified what fatta really was. It’s a dish in which pieces of deep-fried pita are layered with rice in a bowl, which is then doused with a tomato soup. It’s topped with a big piece of slow-cooked beef shank that was braised in the tomato liquid. Impressed that he took the time to describe it, I asked him to explain the kabssa. But it was at that point that his patience had seemingly run out. He only confirmed that the kabssa is a special rice dish and that it has almonds in it.
The meal, which is often considered Egypt’s national dish, also included a well-marinated grilled half chicken that was nicely cooked and moist throughout. But the kabssa’s rice—despite being seasoned with saffron, cinnamon and cardamom—was overcooked to mushy clumps. I hated it.
I had the opposite reaction to the rice in the fatta. I loved how its fluffiness contrasted with the crispy pita. When both were moistened by that tart and beefy tomato broth, it created a combination of textures I can say I’ve never had before. And though the slow-cooked shank had a flavor that suggested it might have been defrosted and reheated, it was tender, soft and satisfying in a homey grandma’s-cooking kind of way.
As I looked around, I realized I was the only one who ordered anything more advanced than the kebabs. In fact, no one in the restaurant was really eating much of anything. Most customers came to puff on the hookah pipe and maybe have a few drinks.
Nevertheless, I pressed on and asked for a dessert menu. Since it wasn’t posted on Yelp, I had to ask the same gent to tell me about the items. After he gamely tried to explain some of them, he finally suggested I use Google. He said it was hard for him to describe the rest. I didn’t end up ordering any of it. It’s one thing to know you have to use Google to decipher the menu before you come, but it’s quite another to be told to do it when you’re already there.
El Fishawy, 303 El Camino Real, Tustin, (714) 486-2528. Open Mon.-Fri., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Entrées, $10.99-$27.99.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.