My friend and I are driving to Fresno to visit her cousin Lucy, who is going to take us to this urban farm to buy pomegranate syrup and preserved figs. It is hot outside. The air conditioner hums as we whiz by trucks grunting to get over the Grapevine. My thoughts drift, my eyes close and I am imagining Mt. Shasta, for some reason, when my friend says, "You know who makes very good bread? Jamillah Garden."
Where did this come from? I wonder. Perhaps, I think, she has been talking to me for quite some time and I have not heard her. Perhaps I have been sleeping for the last half hour or so and didn't even know it.
"A flat bread," my friend says. "With sesame seeds on it and stuffed with green onions. It's really very good."
I sit up straight in my seat and yawn. "Flat bread?"
My friend nods. "Chinese," she says.
"Chinese flat bread?"
"Chinese Islamic flat bread."
"There are Muslims in China?"
"Absolutely," says my friend. "You didn't know that?"
My friend knows everything about food. That's why we are driving to Fresno to buy pomegranate syrup. It's the only place she can get it. "This Jamillah Garden is a very good restaurant," says my friend. "It's one of the few Chinese Islamic restaurants in Orange County."
"How many can there be?" I ask.
My friend shrugs. I close my eyes and start to drift off to sleep again. "Lamb," she says, startling me.
"They serve nice lamb. Like in a stew. And ox tripe. Have you ever had ox tripe?"
I shake my head.
"Chewy," she says.
"Muslims can eat tripe?"
"Of course," she says. "Just not pork. You should go."
I don't know what I was expecting to find at Jamillah Garden. A small, dark restaurant with strings of beads hanging from the doorway and Chinese women wearing veils?
It is nothing like that. It is large, quiet and fairly nondescript in the way so many Chinese restaurants are (in Asia, ambience is always less important than the food; sort of the reverse of most American chain restaurants). I have come in the middle of the lunch hour and since Jamillah Garden is in a Tustin business park and much of their business comes from walk-ins working in the surrounding buildings, they are used to getting customers in and out quickly.
Before I can even open the menu, there is a pot of tea on my table, a bowl of noodle soup and a mini-egg roll--the standard Chinese quick-lunch menu fare. Seconds later a waitress comes by to see if I am ready to order.
"Can I start with the sesame flat bread?" I ask.
"It takes 15 minutes," she warns me.
I'm in no hurry, I tell her. A businessman in white shirt, sleeves rolled up, sitting in the booth next to mine already has a big plate of steaming noodles in a dark brown sauce, though we sat down at the same time. I pour a cup of tea. The waitress stops by again to see if I have decided what I want.
"Not quite yet," I tell her. In truth, the menu is daunting. The first page is nothing but lunch specials--designed to get you in and out quickly--yet there are still almost 50 items listed, from shredded chicken with jelly fish to braised lamb with sa cha sauce. Hundreds of items follow on the next eight pages: cold dishes, warm pots, seafood, homemade soft noodles, rice bowls, vegetarian specialties. On a chalkboard, in both Chinese and English, are specials such as sea cucumber in brown sauce, lamb soup with crusty bread and tofu omelet in brown sauce. And there is the spicy ox tripe, with hot peppers, my friend told me about.
"What's good?" I ask the waitress. A ridiculous question. Particularly with a menu with hundreds of items on it in a busy restaurant during the lunch hour. But she smiles and leans over my menu, pointing out favorites. "Do you like garlic shrimp?" she asks. "It's very good." And the oxtail stew with bean noodles or the wok-fried homemade noodles. "Good with lamb," she says.
I wish my friend were here. My friend always knows what to order. When we finally picked up Aunt Lucy in front of the Armenian church in Fresno and made our way out to the little ranch house where an elderly couple was boiling grape juice in a vat the size of a water heater, my friend got a box and went to one of the big refrigerators, like the kind they have at mini-marts, and started pulling out Mason jars of strange ingredients that she was sure I needed: homemade tomato paste, pepper sauce, molasses, preserved figs, and, of course, the pomegranate syrup that came in a 2-quart jar.
The jar, viscous and deep red, must have weighed 5 pounds. I couldn't imagine what I was going to do with it. She opened it up, dipped my finger in the thick sauce and made me taste it. "Lamb," she said. "You put it on lamb. Or chicken." Then she sealed it back up. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll send you some recipes."
So, I wonder as I stare at this Islamic Chinese menu full of exotic dishes I have never heard of, what would my friend order?