If you were in Beirut right now hanging out on a street corner, chances are you'd be talking about the U.N.'s investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a beloved former Lebanese prime minister who investigators believe was killed by Syrian agents in February for his opposition to Syria's involvement in Lebanese politics.
And if you got hungry talking about all the political intrigue, chances are also good that you'd grab a manakeesh from a nearby vendor.
Manakeesh are fresh baked, light and puffy flat breads topped with a variety of herbs, cheese or meat. They look like little pizzas, but the toppings are applied more sparingly. The savory pies are to Lebanese food what hot dogs are to American fast food. However, unlike their American equivalents, manakeesh are eaten for breakfast with a cup of tea and as a quick snack later in the day.
Manakeesh are a rarity in Silicon Valley, which makes San Jose's Just Laziz special. According to restaurant owner Saleh Raad, his are the only manakeesh in the South Bay. He immigrated to the United States via Canada and missed the taste of his native snack.
"Back home there's one on every corner," he says.
While he was working for a local Honda dealership, he struck on the idea of opening his own restaurant to serve the South Bay's Arab population and to feed his hunger for home. While he says Arabs flock to his restaurant (the meats are all halal), he was surprised to see the number of non-Arabs who come into his recently expanded but still small restaurant. But it's really no surprise. The love for fresh baked bread topped with savory ingredients is universal and there's a lot to like at Just Laziz.
The restaurant is short on décor, just a few tables and a self-serve cooler filled with sodas, bottled water and a good Middle Eastern yogurt drink. Eight months ago, Raad expanded from a take-out only operation to add the bare-bones dining room. Just Laziz (laziz means "delicious" in Arabic) makes 10 kinds of manakeesh. When I walked in the first time the staff was kneading balls of dough for manakeesh. After I placed my order, the guy behind the counter rolled out the dough like a pizza, adding the toppings, and eased it into the brick oven. The recipe for the dough is a simple one Raad got from his mother and it's good enough to impress his countrymen (and countrywomen).
"I have old ladies from my country ask for the recipe," he says.
The final product is light and chewy, and pleasantly browned with a pleasant yeasty tang. You eat them like you would a big slice of New York-style pizza, folded up so you don't lose any of the stuff on top. Straight from the oven they're great, but they don't travel so well. I ordered one to go and half an hour later it had lost its steamy, chewy appeal.
Zaatar ($1.49) is the classic Lebanese breakfast snack. It's topped with an olive oil-based, salty-tangy sauce of oregano, sumac (a Middle Eastern spice) and sesame. Lahmbaajin ($2.49) combines finely ground beef and lamb in a light, highly spiced tomato sauce that's redolent of cinnamon, sumac and black pepper. Another winner is the sambaing and jebneh ($1.75), a fresh spinach and cheese combination. The mild white cheese is made from goat's milk. It melts beautifully and gives the pie a lemony sparkle.
In addition to manakeesh, Just Laziz also serves shawarma, the Middle East's version of gyros. Slices of marinated lamb and beef are cooked on a vertical broiler and sliced off. The meat on my shawarma plate ($8.99) had a great flavor from its olive oil and herb marinade but it verged on dry. And I think it would be better with longer strips of meat instead of the little bits Just Laziz serves.
The hummus and babaganoush play supporting roles on the shawarma platter, but they are particularly good. Both make heavy use of tahini (sesame paste). Tahini is standard in both, but here it's more pronounced. Both spreads are fabulously rich and creamy, especially the hummus. Saad adds a secret but commonly available ingredient to achieve the silken consistency.
In addition to the excellent manakeesh, Just Laziz deserves attention for its great Middle Eastern pastries and cookies. Except for the wonderful maamool ($1.25), a light, date paste-filled butter cookie, the sweets are made offsite by a Syrian bakery. They're all good, but my favorite is barazik ($1.50), a thin cookie encrusted with sesame seeds and ground pistachio. It's sweet, but just barely. Warbat ($2.25) is like baklava but is filled with a sweet cheese and yet has a more restrained sweetness than the typical syrup-drenched baklava. And be sure to grab a greibeh ($1.25) or two, a light and dusty shortbread cookie.
Forgive the pat ending, but I pronounce it all just delicious.
Address: 1880 W. San Carlos St., San Jose.
Hours: Open 9am-7pm Mon-Sat and 9am-6pm Sun.
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Price Range: $1.49-$8.99.