As with most restaurants that are also hookah lounges, I knew we’d be sitting outside at Luxor Cafe & Restaurant in Garden Grove. And Luxor is practically all outdoor patio because Rozana Café—the restaurant and hookah lounge it replaced—was also all patio. So after arriving at 7 p.m. on a Friday and claiming the largest and cushiest couch at our waiter’s suggestion, we stretched out and got comfortable, basking in our luck and the breezy surroundings.
But the longer we were there, eating our labneh and kofta with rice, the more we realized we were the only two customers in attendance. With the exception of the restaurant’s staff, we saw no other souls that night. And let me tell you, it’s one thing to have the best seat and the server’s undivided attention, but it’s quite another to be completely alone in a restaurant designed for merriment.
It was then that I wondered: Was Luxor too far from the main drag of Anaheim’s Little Arabia for anyone to notice it? Where were all the people I saw in the video on the restaurant’s Facebook page?
After looking at that post again, I realized that clip was made during the iftar buffet. Since iftar ended with Ramadan on June 24 this year, we were a few months too late to the party. But then, later that week, I saw another post. Luxor’s owners announced they were going to start hosting Saturday outdoor barbecues complete with a singer and belly dancer. When I called to ask about the details, the man who answered said the buffet dinner would cost $16.99 per person, start at 7 p.m. and last until 10 p.m., whereupon a singer would perform.
“And the belly dancer?” I inquired.
“She’ll be here around 11. Would you like to make a reservation?” he asked.
“A reservation? Do I need one?” I replied, still remembering our lonely evening from a week before.
“Oh, yes, we’re expecting a lot of people, so it would be good if you had one.”
And he was right. We arrived that Saturday to a full house. It was 8:30 p.m., and all the tables on the patio were occupied by families, women in hijabs, women not in hijabs, groups of men, toddlers and infants in strollers. Everyone was eating off picnic plates and sipping mango juice from plastic cups. The few guests who’d finished dinner had their heads leaned back against their seats. They were sucking on gurgling hookah hoses and playing cards.
As the sweet-smelling smoke of flavored tobacco wafted in the air, our server led us to our table, which had a “Reserved” placard on it. We helped ourselves to the buffet that was set up just outside the patio area. Among the many items were a kofta like I’d eaten a week earlier, platters of hummus, a big salad bowl, and smoky boneless barbecued chicken thighs in pieces too huge for my flimsy plate. There were also dishes I’d never seen before, including tangy fried eggplants and a baked tray of pastry that resembled baklava but were actually gollash, phyllo dough squares covering minced beef.
There were two kinds of mahshi, the general Egyptian term for veggies crammed with rice and herbs. The stuffed grape leaves were not unlike the Greek version, but the zucchini—which was served whole and intact with their insides hollowed out and replaced with rice—was nothing short of an engineering marvel.
I heaped on a stew of peas called basila and a shredded-beef stew called bamya over fragrant rice. The bamya contained the tiniest okras I’ve ever seen. There was mombar, a grilled sausage that was filled with nothing but spicy rice. But the best dish of the night was fish so deftly fried and seasoned I went back for two more helpings. For dessert, there was kunafa, the baked custardy-cheesy confection blanketed with a crunchy, wiry topping not unlike shredded wheat. Once word got out it was available, it disappeared quickly. By the time I went for seconds, only crumbs were left on the tray.
Throughout the night, the owner would roast more chicken and more kofta on his sidewalk charcoal grill. We were in a retail-center parking lot, but it looked like we were at someone’s backyard barbecue. Later, a birthday song was sung for someone in the crowd, first in English, then in Egyptian Arabic. And when the belly dancer shimmied and gyrated her way to our table, I rewarded the performace by tucking a dollar into her waist belt. Overstimulated by the tea and merriment, we decided to leave at 11:45, but the crowd at Luxor was just getting started. The singing began at midnight, and the restaurant would not close for another two hours.
Luxor Cafe & Restaurant, 12105 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 530-2222; www.facebook.com/luxorcaferest. Open daily, 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday barbecue buffet, $16.99 per person. No alcohol.
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.