Freeking Out at the Pharoh Café


Usually, I try to focus on a restaurant’s food rather than, say, the décor, service, or some other aspect of the dining experience. Occasionally, distractions make this nearly impossible.

I’d passed the Pharoh (sic) Café in Ridgewood several times before finally deciding to stop. Ridgewood is right across the Queens border from Bushwick, and it must be one of the cheapest places in town to find an apartment. The nabe was once German, and the main drag of Fresh Pond Road remains anchored by Karl Ehmer, a butcher shop famous for its bratwursts and weisswursts. Nowadays, the area’s denizens tend to be Romanians, Albanians, and Poles, who find the hilly, tree-lined streets the perfect place to raise a family.

At the threshold of Pharoh, my posse and I were assailed by great fruity clouds of smoke. Indeed, we soon discovered that hookahs, not food, were the main attraction, with 22 choices of tobacco available at $8 per bowl, including “apricoat” (a smoking jacket?), cappuccino (inhale your caffeine?), and anise (yuck!). These flavored tobaccos smoldered in giant water pipes scattered around the premises. “Who are the other patrons slouching around us?” asked my pal Gabriella, a Princeton coed. “Romanian hip-hop teens?” I replied tentatively, noting their pale youthful complexions, baseball caps turned backwards over do-rags, and pendant gold jewelry.

But the food menu was extensive, too, listing such Egyptian culinary arcana as molokhia (a weed that grows on the banks of the Nile), and quail stuffed with freek (an ancient grain, not a hash-stoned hippie). We planted ourselves at one of the mismatched couches arranged around low coffee tables and admired the pharaonic seals stenciled on the walls, culminating in a painfully orange mural that might have been titled Sunrise Over the Pyramids With a Hangover. The general vibe of the place made us wonder if anyone ever ordered food. But the proprietor hastened up with assurances that dinner was indeed available. We ordered extensively, and our host traipsed through clouds of smoke to prod a large man dozing in the corner, who turned out to be the cook.

The wait was 45 minutes, but when the food arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. No quail that day, but there was a nice babaganoush ($4) spread in a circular pattern around the plate, a Greek salad that was mainly iceberg with some feta, and a citrusy stew of fava beans called foul (“fool”), attributed to the port city of Alexandria, where the proprietor was from. The meat, too, was on the money, including an oniony beef kufta ($12) presented on a bed of mixed rice and vermicelli, and a chicken kebab rubbed with red oil.

Best of all, though, was the miloukhia soup ($12), a dense green swamp with a slimy texture. It came with a big plate of rice ringed with tender chunks of stewed lamb. Another favorite was bashamel ($6), a casserole fabricated from pasta, white béchamel sauce, and ground meat. On a subsequent visit, we learned to love Pharoh’s hummus, a coarse blend of chickpeas, tahini, and garlic, and finally got a shot at the quail. Though not freeked, the pair of small birds were pleasantly pan-roasted with herbs and spices, a bargain at $12. Still, it was hard to taste the food with smoke in your nostrils.

As we dined that first evening, Scooter noticed a pile of boxes on one side of the room, constituting some sort of retail display. One of the boxes had been set at a jaunty angle on top, showing a pair of frolicking young lads. Emblazoned across the box was “Pilot Bidet,” with a picture of a plastic contraption hooked up to the back of a toilet seat. Before we could stop him, Scooter engaged our host in an animated discussion of the device (for sale at $79), culminating in a trip to the restroom, where one had been installed. He reported that the contraption has regulatory knobs and a nozzle that squirts water, intended to cleanse the nether regions in lieu of toilet paper. “It looks like it would send droplets all over the place,” he grimaced. We shuddered, but continued eating.

As the plates were cleared away, we succumbed to curiosity about the hookahs. We opted for “sweet melon,” and, with great ceremony, our proprietor set up the pipe, trucked in coals from the backyard, ignited the tobacco, then took a couple of test tugs to prove the pipe was working.

The smoke was cool and sweet, and we soon slid into a nicotine reverie, dreaming of bidets.