The nautical-themed etchings on the mirror at one end of Cafe Nasa give away the building's former incarnation as an oyster bar. The name, too -- sounding for all the world like it should be attached to a restaurant holding the government concession in some anonymous administration building -- gives little indication of the temptations that appear on the menu. But try a smear of their hummus on a triangle of pita bread, and any doubts you might have had that a Lebanese restaurant that really knows what it's doing could appear behind such a funkily bureaucratic name and unglamorous, functional facade will quickly evaporate. It's creamy and thick, earthy and grainy. It has all of the sharpness that defines a successful hummus and none of the half-cooked bean flavor that might ruin same. The picture is made perfect by the spoonful of olive oil ladled over the top, and by the black olive peering out of the middle of the stuff like some cyclopean appendage.
Another Lebanese basic done right is that ineffably soothing eggplant dip, baba ghanouj. A pretty buff color, it's sharp and salty (just this side of too much so) with peanut buttery undertones (lent, no doubt, by the inclusion of just the right amount of tahini). It's definitive. Which is to say that it ranks among the best baba ghanouj I've sampled anywhere, anytime. I worry, though, that one more flick of the wrist belonging to the cook holding the salt shaker could nudge the sodium content of this baby into the hypertension zone.
There's an art to flirting with over-seasoning. And at times, Cafe Nasa comes dangerously close to crossing the line from coquettishness to outright assault. In fact, occasionally they do cross that line. The Greek salad, tantalizing to contemplate with its dusting of peat moss-colored dried herbs contrasted against the icy green of its lettuces, and with its snowy, clumpy nuggets of generously portioned feta cheese, is so salty as to be almost inedible. The neutral cushion of pita bread, served warm and fresh (fresh enough, anyway -- they buy it daily from Droubi's) at all stages of the meal, is a necessary palliative to such occasional episodes of heavy-handedness. So is a bottomless glass of ice water.
Yet another dish whose saltiness disappointed me was the seafood kabob. Here were near-perfect shrimp, fresh and superbly charred and seasoned (granted, the accompanying rice and vegetables were more or less pedestrian, but the shrimp's excellence more than made up for them) -- then in crept that stultifying salt factor.
Near oversalting similarly threatens to detract from the beef gyros, which are actually 60 percent ground lamb and 40 percent ground beef. Otherwise, though, these scandalously flavorful meat strips, dribbling with a puckery yogurt sauce, wrapped in a Frisbee of soft, hot bread and then wrapped again in a foil jacket are the ideal grown-up counterpart to a fast food burger. You want sophistication with an exotic twist, but messy enough to still appeal to the youngster inside? Help yourself to a beef gyro from Cafe Nasa. So, too, a chicken gyro will more than suffice when the thought of eating yet another drive-through fajita taco leaves you cold.
Happily, salt isn't an issue with the tabbouleh. The seasonings in this dish are a model of restraint -- so much so that one lunchmate wished she had a wedge of lemon to jazz it up. I, however, found the clean-tasting salad of parsley, cracked wheat and tomatoes exactly to my liking.
There are other inducements in the appetizer section. Skip over the spinach pies, whose pastry shell tends to be tough or soggy, and head straight for the dolmas. Fat and dry -- instead of skinny and wet, as are so many of the stuffed grape leaves served up in restaurants that should know better -- these are a version of a Middle Eastern basic that could set the standard for its species. The stick-to-your-fingers rice filling is given high spirits with flecks of spicy red pepper. I have a sneaking suspicion that some Middle Eastern restaurants pry open a can when it's time to dish out the dolmas. Not so at Cafe Nasa; all their Middle Eastern offerings, except the pita bread and pastries, are made fresh on the premises. And the proof is in the dolmas.
The proof is also in the falafel, whether you order it on its own as an appetizer or in another of Cafe Nasa's glorious, drippy, pita-wrapped sandwiches. Either way, what's served is an amazingly green-tasting, vegetal patty that's crisp and brown on the outside and a bright shade of emerald on the inside. The distinct tastes of fresh cilantro and jalapeno are there, their presence confirmed by the heat that sneaks up on you a few bites into it. Try a patty by itself dredged through a yogurt dip that I swear has in it a hint of tequila. Or try the falafel sandwich, which, when cut in half, presents an attractive pinwheel-shaped cross section of fruits of the earth. I did find myself missing the traditional accompaniment of pink pickled turnips, which are mysteriously, and lamentably, absent from Cafe Nasa's condiment offerings.
Finally, what would dining at a Middle Eastern restaurant be without sampling at least one version of a Greek-style lasagna? Here, the mousaka, layers of eggplant stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts, swimming in a cinnamon-tinged tomato sauce, is as hearty and satisfying as you could hope. And the Turkish coffee, black and thick, soulful with cardamom seeds, is one apres dinner drink with enough character to hold up to all this rich food.
And so, you might ask, what about Cafe Nasa's reuben sandwich, its broccoli and cheese soup? The restaurant does, after all, offer a whole slew of menu items with Western origins.
I'm afraid I'm not the one to ask about these. I've never bothered trying them, and have no plan to do so. If I want that kind of food, I'll find a Bennigan's up the freeway. But when I want stellar hummus and model falafel, I'll come here.
Cafe Nasa, 1306 NASA Road 1, 486-8854.
Cafe Nasa: seafood kabob, $10.95; mousaka, $8.95; combination platter (tabbouleh, hummus, kebbe ball, grape leaves, falafel patty), $7.95.