I’m sure that my blog is peppered with assloads of unintentional international food comedy. One of my posts might rant and rave about how much I loved a meal from a particular country, while readers from that country are thinking “Dude, that slop looks nothing like our food, you stupid American slop-eating fool!” And the stupid slop-eating American food blogger will never know the difference.
So it’s always a treat when I can bring, say, a Syrian food expert along with me to a Syrian restaurant. It’s even more of a treat when the Syrian is literally bouncing with excitement because the food really is just like her mom’s.
Waterfalls Café on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn has served Syrian food for at least 15 years, but our Syrian friend—an energetic, brilliant law student named Lena who sometimes bounces when she gets excited—had never been there. In fact, she’d never been to a Syrian restaurant in the United States, despite living here for much of her life. And considering that her mom and her aunts sound like they can work some serious kitchen magic, why would she ever bother to set foot in a Syrian restaurant?
Even though there were only three of us at the table, we didn’t hold back when it came to ordering food. We started with a huge, round, freshly-baked slab of zaatar bread, coated with sesame seeds and sumac; I’m not a zaatar bread expert, but it was easily the best I’d ever eaten, and put Damascusland Bakery’s rendition to shame. The zaatar bread was particularly amazing when slathered with labneh, a phenomenally smooth spread made from homemade yogurt, mint, and olive oil.
As if we needed more appetizers, we ordered some fried kibbeh balls, arguably the national dish of Syria, made from bulgur wheat and ground beef. And then we did our best to make a dent in a large fatoosh salad, topped with parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and toasted pita.
And then we kept piling on main courses: a phenomenal bowl of okra stewed with tomatoes and served with a side of rice pilaf; zucchini stuffed with ground beef and topped with an energetic tomato sauce; and my personal favorite, a madly addictive dish called mulukhiyah, featuring chicken stewed with onion, garlic, lemon juice, cinnamon and sturdy, collard-like leaves. It was good enough to make all three of us bounce happily.
Even the beverages were fresh and interesting. We ordered two different versions of airan, a yogurt-based drink. One version was a salty smoothie made from garlic, parsley, and yogurt, akin to a salty, less-chunky, extra-garlicky version of Greek tsatziki sauce. The other was a mango-yogurt blend that resembled a south Asian mango lassi. Both were outstanding and inexpensive ($2.50), though one version was far kinder to our breath than the other.
And just to clear up some Waterfalls-related confusion: the restaurant changed hands a few years ago, and the affable new owner hails from Egypt. The original Syrian chef is still working her magic in the kitchen, though, and the menu is thoroughly Syrian.
As soon as we met the Egyptian owner, Lena tossed out an adorable bit of warmhearted cultural stereotyping: “In the Levant, we’re known for our food. Egyptians are known throughout the region for being charming people.” I’ve only met about a dozen Egyptians in my life, but Lena might have a point: every one of them was warm and charming. Unless, of course, you’re a pigeon, in which case you might have a different opinion about Egyptians.
But no matter where you’re from—or how much you hate pigeons—it’s hard to argue with the spectacular, cheap chow at Waterfalls. Lena, for her part, was literally bouncing with excitement through much of the meal. I think it’s safe to say that the food really was that good, and its awesomeness wasn’t just a figment of my ignorant, slop-eating American imagination.
144 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn
Subway: Borough Hall (2, 3, 4, 5 trains)