To be honest, I had my suspicions as I arrived at The Holy Land Cafe, a smallish, dilapidated place on the corner of a busy street. It looked like a dingy box left untouched and forgotten underneath someone’s bed. It was admittedly queer, but I was still curious to investigate this Middle Eastern-style cafe.
Walking across the vacant parking lot, I could see only one other person through the window. My first impression was that the place was pretty sketchy, but I was really excited when I learned that my old French 2 teacher at Indian Hills Middle school owns the cafe along with her husband. I remembered her giving long, detailed lectures in class about her husband being from the Middle East and his influences on her American culture, so I made it a priority to get there.
Middle Eastern food is a huge part of my family’s life. With my mom being half Arabic, my family has a lot unique dishes that most families don’t have, like shish kabobs and baba ganouj. Yes, I was questioning the authenticity, reasons being that authentic Middle Eastern food is rare in Kansas City. I mean what are the chances of having some legitimate falafel somewhere thousands of miles away from its origin?
There was no immediate desire to walk into the rectangular, dimly-lit building with a squeaky, catching door, the words TAKE- OUT plastered onto it. The paint on the door that I assumed used to be white was chip- ping off, but upon opening the door, I immediately noticed the vibrantly colored rugs plastered onto the wall and hand painted plates depicting Jerusalem.
The waiter led me into a back room off of the main dining area where there were a few small tables pushed up against the window, and I sat down at a table next to a smallish lounging area. Thank goodness the seats were plush. I mean, come on, they have to be plush if I’m going to sit down and do some chemistry I might as well be comfortable.
After sitting down, I looked over the menu until I saw a gyro sandwich with rice. Traditionally, gyros consist of cooked lamb slices seasoned with oregano and other spices best served with pita bread or maybe some hummus. I ordered it with a side of yellow rice, which is usually seasoned with turmeric and saffron.
Since the place was actually quite subdued, I pulled out my chemistry homework and was able to do it pretty easily and stay focused, and waited while there was quiet Arabic music playing. The whole experience felt quite real, and reminded me of when my grandfather — who was born and raised in Syria — would cook for me at his house, with soft Arabic music playing in the back- ground, while he danced around and singing the words. Though I had no idea what he was saying, it still made me laugh, sort of the way I felt at The Holy Land Cafe. I didn’t know too much about the culture, but it still felt real.
When my food came out after about 15 minutes, I was greeted with a spectacularly rich aroma of earthy lamb and toasted pita bread. It all looked incredibly enticing; the lamb was seasoned perfectly with just the right blend of salt, garlic and rosemary, giving it a very distinctive, almost addictive flavor. It wasn’t too tough or gamey, but perfectly tender and palatable. The pita bread was fluffy, and warm, which tasted amazing with the hummus. The hummus itself was pretty unique; it was drizzled with olive oil, and some bright orange spices and light green leaves were placed delicately on the side.
Authenticity is one thing, but making food that still sticks to tradition is ideal. Truthfully, going to Middle Eastern places is usually a privilege for me, and this visit was an exceptional experience. The diversity of cultures that I observed, and experiencing different smells and thick accents I never hear outside of my family was really neat.
The most amusing thing about going to the cafe, in regards to the culture, was Mrs. Harzi’s influences. She had always worn vibrantly-colored shawls with swirling patterns to school everyday, and the lights hanging in her classroom mixed in with the African decor displayed all of her different personalities. In the restaurant, the couches mimicked her vibrant wardrobe, and the walls were painted deep, rich colors similar to her classroom. I loved the wild, exotic feel of everything.
The cafe’s combination of traditional food and authenticity is truly a perfect blend. Its eye-catching furnishings and enigmatic col- or scheme add great value to the place. It was incredibly satisfying to go somewhere that felt so familiar to me. I could definitely take my family from Syria there, and undoubtedly they’d be impressed.