Saturday, February 23, 2008

We can't get enough of Zia

Kara introduced me to Zia and Zia's Afghan Cafe when we first started going out and it was one of our favorite places to dine. And, for a little while, Zia had a booth at the Hillcrest farmer's market where he sold his delicious chicken in pita bread sandwiches that I could never pass up. So, it was very sad for both of us when Zia stopped showing up at the market and closed his restaurant. We later learned that Zia had gone back to his beloved Afghanistan after the Taliban government was overthrown. We were happy for Zia, but sad for our culinary loss.

We later discovered that his son, Khaled, had opened his own restaurant in the Rolando area (East of SDSU for the neighborhood-names challenged) after Zia's place closed. I think the name of the place is Café Zia, although the menu says simply, "Zia wraps". The food there is wonderful and we both highly recommend it, but Rolando is out of the way, so the only time we go there is when we see a play at Cygnet across the street.

This past September, we were at the Adams Avenue Street Fair when we noticed a new place named Zia Gourmet Pizza was opening soon. We checked it out and sure enough, Khaled was opening another "Zia", this time closer to home and this time, as a pizza place. We spoke to him briefly and he indicated that he would be keeping both his wraps restaurant and this new place open, not closing one in favor of the other. We were jazzed at the prospect of having two Zia's to eat at and looked forward to its opening.

We were on Adams Avenue about a month ago, thinking that we would check out the new pizza place, but while it had opened, it had odd hours (5PM to 10PM) and was not yet open for the day. We were too early, so we ate elsewhere that night.

Kara had been kind enough to cook dinners for us every night this past week, but she was tired of cooking and wanted to go out last night. The original plan was to go to our regular place, The Linkery, but I checked the menu for the night, wasn't that impressed with the current selections, and was itching for a change. I suggested Alexander's, where we had an incredibly delicious but very noisy meal a little while ago, but Kara wasn't ready to go back to such a busy place on a Friday night. I then remembered Zia's new place, suggested it and Kara was enthusiastic about the idea.

So it was that we tried the newest Zia incarnation last night. For a Friday night, the place was almost dead with only a party of three at one table. A quick glance at that table revealed the man, Zia, himself was back in the states and eating in his son's restaurant, which was very cool. Khaled was behind the counter and greeted us warmly (he remembered us from our visits to his wraps place). A very good start.

The place is pretty bare bones. There's no signage inside and no menu board. The entire right-side of the front of the restaurant is crammed with couches and furniture (we didn't know what to make of that) with customer booths and tables to the left. There is a counter that separates the diners and furniture pile from the kitchen in the back with no signage or menu board of any kind. I didn't count, but the counter had about eight different pizza pie plates each with three to five slices each of different flavors of pizza with a paper menu stuck under the front-edge of the plate with the name of the pizza circled. The hostess/waitress standing behind the counter stood ready to take our order and we quickly understood that you could pick slices from the counter or order a custom pie. I like variety, so we checked out our options, asked some questions and decided upon four slices total for the both of us.

All pizzas come on a crust described as "mouth-watering... prepared with healthy whole wheat and herbs and spices". Here are the slices we chose with the descriptions straight from their menu:
  • French: "Our savory wild Atlantic salmon (marinated in a mouth watering combination of herbs and spices) combined with tomatoes, capers, lean cream cheese, fresh basil and topped with mozzarella." $3.45/slice
  • The New Yorker: "Our tasty and lean turkey pastrami combined with green onions, pepperoncini, light cream cheese and fresh basil and topped with mozzarella." $2.95/slice
  • Veggie: "A tasteful combination of artichoke hearts, goat feta, kalamata olives, light cream cheese and topped with mozzarella." $2.95/slice
  • Roast Chicken: "Our succulent chicken (marinated in a savory lemon-garlic sauce) combined with fresh garlic, green onion, mushroom, capers, ricotta cheese and topped with mozzarella. $3.45/slice
Needless to say, these are not your traditional pizza toppings. As a matter of fact, none of the pizza choices on the menu could be considered traditional, unless you choose the "USA Pizza (U Suggest All)", where you select your own components from a list of "Protein", "Cheese", "Sauce" and "Veggie" options. Under "Protein", your choices are chicken, turkey pastrami, baked bean curd and wild salmon. There's no beef or pork options on the menu, so no pepperoni or sausage, but neither Kara nor I eat beef or pork, so this was perfect for us.

As a meal, the food was healthy, adventuresome and excellent, well within the tradition of "Zia's". As a pizza... well, I can't really compare these pizzas to any other pizzas because the taste is so different. If I'm in the mood for pizza by the slice, I'll probably still go with my favorite place, Pizzeria Luigi, where the slices are both delicious and cheap ($5.50 for 2 slices and drink), but Zia's pizzas I don't think are meant to compete with your local pizza joint or any other pizza place for that matter. I'll go to Zia Gourmet Cafe again when I'm in the mood for something different, local, tasty and quick — something Zia. As for recommending the place, absolutely we'd recommend it, not as a pizza place, but as a good place to eat and very vegetarian friendly.

My only complaint, if you can even call it a complaint, is that I like the wraps place better than the pizza place. But then again, I haven't tried all the different pizza options and I might find a slice of Zia Gourmet Pizza that is as good as any of the incredibly delicious wraps at Café Zia. The best possible thing that could happen would be for Khaled to open a third restaurant with both the wraps and the pizza and perhaps other options here in South Park; with The Linkery moving this spring and with the renovations of the warehouses on 3oth Street between Ivy and Juniper or the reconstruction of the buildings on the corner of 30th and Beech, there are plenty of places for new restaurants to try.

Oh, and one last thing, we didn't want to disturb Zia while he was eating, but we did stop and say hello when we were ready to leave. He was very happy to see both of us (especially Kara) and he told us how he owns some land in Afghanistan now and is looking forward to going back again in March to check on it. Zia is such a nice guy and although we miss his cooking, we're both very happy for him and he seems very happy as well.

Zia Gourmet Pizza is located at 3311 Adams Ave, Suite A, (next to the yoga place run by the same cult that runs Jyoti Bihanga, Kara's favorite restaurant) in Normal Heights. It is open 5PM to 10PM, Tuesday through Sunday, and closed on Monday.

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