When the curvaceous dancer stops at our table, I attempt to stuff a dollar in the waistband of her bangled skirt. Just as my hands reach her hips, she begins to undulate wildly, leaving me unsure where to deposit my money. The crowd goes wild as I turn crimson. Finally I stuff the bill, get a kiss and smile stupidly after her. A swift kick to my shin under the table reminds me that my girlfriend is still here. It's 10:30 on a Saturday night at El Mirage, and the party is just getting started.
On my first visit, I had mistaken the place for a large cheesy Middle Eastern restaurant with decent food. But that was on a Friday night at 8:30. A friend and I shared a 12-dish mezza, which was simply too much food for the two of us, and I left after the belly dancer's performance. You should have hung around, my friend assured me. The real action starts later. So this time I have brought three friends -- four is the perfect number for the mezza -- and we arrive a little after ten o'clock.
El Mirage serves as a social center for Houston's Arab community. Since the Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians and other Middle Eastern ethnic groups don't live in any specific part of town, they use the restaurant as a gathering place. As a result, on Friday and Saturday nights, going to El Mirage is a little like attending a gigantic Arab wedding.
For cocktails, we order four araks on the rocks. Arak is a Lebanese anise-spiked liquor that tastes a lot like the licorice-flavored French pastis. It's a clear liquid that turns milky when water is added. The three other diners end up passing me their glasses -- nobody else can stand the stuff. They order a bottle of Chardonnay instead. The four Arab men next to us order a full bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, four glasses and a bucket of ice.
Everybody in the restaurant seems to be ordering the mezza. The 12 fixed dishes include tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanoush, Mediterranean salad, yogurt and cucumbers, kibbe (lamb-stuffed pastries), shanklish (herbed cheese with diced tomatoes) and some assorted pickles, olives and other tidbits. The food comes with a seemingly endless supply of hot Persian taftoon, a flat, puffy, round bread. The hummus is a little too slick for my taste; it has none of the texture of garbanzo beans. The tabbouleh is the parsley-heavy Lebanese version that I love, the baba ghanoush is well spiced, and I suspect the kibbe is the frozen variety. The shanklish is the standout: Yogurt cheese is rolled with ground cumin, oregano and other spices until it resembles bread crumbs, and then it's topped with chopped green onions, diced tomatoes and olive oil. It makes an awesome taftoon topping.
Along with the mezza, we order two combinations from the grilled meat section of the menu: beef-and-lamb shish kebab and chicken shish tawook with grilled shrimp. The meats, already removed from the skewers, are placed on a large oval platter with rows of green parsley-flavored and red tomato-spiked rice between them. The beef is incredibly tender, with a pleasant charred color and taste. It takes a few experimental bites to tell the beef chunks from the equally soft pieces of marinated lamb. The chicken is pleasant, if a tad mushy, and the shrimp are huge, though on the tough side. The grilled meats are almost too much to eat on top of the mezza.
Still, I wouldn't recommend skipping the mezza, which may seem like odd advice coming from a meat lover like me. Simply put, there's something about the plethora of little dishes that makes this appetizer course the very heart of the Middle Eastern feast. (Although, glancing over at our friends with the bottle of Johnnie Walker, I suppose you could also argue that a liter of good Scotch is the heart of a Middle Eastern feast.)
It's after 11 o'clock, and we're mopping up the meats when the band starts playing. Several songs into the set, a singer joins in. He has a beautiful wailing voice, but we can't understand any of the Arabic lyrics. Even more confusing: We can't see him anywhere. It's like a disembodied voice. My girlfriend nudges me and points to the table behind us. A handsome young man in a dark suit with a dark shirt and flowered tie is sitting among his friends with a cordless microphone in hand. He is discreetly singing while seated at the table. Finally, as the music shifts into a faster rhythm, he gets up and charges to the stage. The crowd roars its approval as he sings an urgent call-and-response chorus. Several men leap up from their tables, shaking their shoulders and dancing in the aisles, including one of the guys from the Scotch group.
"I wonder what he's saying," I mutter to my girlfriend as we watch the men twist and shout.
"I think he's saying, 'Let's get jiggy!' " she speculates.
The women eating dinner at El Mirage are an intriguing mix. There are young Middle Eastern women strutting their stuff in short leather skirts, middle-aged Middle Eastern women in evening clothes, and mysterious women whose faces peek out from black chadors. There are also quite a few non-Arab women who seem to know a lot about belly dancing. All over the room, men and women alike are shaking their upper bodies, moving their arms and dancing in their seats.
At a table with two young couples, a lovely, lithe woman stands up and begins to move like a belly dancer while staring into her date's eyes. By his degree of embarrassment, I assume he's her husband. Finally the guy gets up and leads her to the dance floor, where there's a whole lotta hip-shaking going on. Six non-Arab women leave their tables to dance with one another.
"Are they belly dancing students?" I wonder to my girlfriend.
"Maybe they're just looking to meet some nice young sheikhs," she quips.
There are better places than El Mirage to eat Middle Eastern food in Houston, but none of them is this much fun. Go late on Friday or Saturday with three or four friends, order a mezza and a bottle of wine -- then sit back and relax. You'll be in for one of the most exotic evenings the city has to offer.
Around midnight, the party is in full swing. The dance floor is packed, and more than a dozen hookahs have produced a low-hanging, apple-scented cloud of smoke. I ask my girlfriend if she wants to dance once before we leave, but she declines. She says she and her girlfriend have decided they need to learn a few belly dancing moves before stepping out among this crowd. This isn't very characteristic of them; they're usually the first ones on the floor. I think the real reason is that she's trying to help me preserve a little dignity. Every time I try to imitate the arm gestures of this style of dancing, I break into the macarena.