Yafa Grill and Pizzeria (Columbia Heights, MN)
So there we were, eating with a couple of South African exchange students, talking to our Palestinian waiter and exchanging pleasantries with the Arabic-speaking men at the next table smoking from hookahs. Right here in Anoka County. It's moments like this that make this job fun.
Lewis Carroll introduced the hookah into Western consciousness, and now we all know what it looks like. Also called a nargila or shisha -- depending on where in the Middle East you are -- this sort of smoking is a social affair. That's surely true at Yafa Grill, a gathering spot for aficionados of the sweet, fruity tobacco smoke. You can have a pipe of your own for just $6.
But we and our guests were there for dinner. The smokers, although they were close by, didn't detract at all from our meal. It's not acrid cigarette smoke, and the ventilation is good. Of course, the truly sensitive probably will have to give it a pass, but we liked the food at Yafa Grill well enough to go back.
They serve a mixed bunch of Middle Eastern dishes, most of them familiar favorites. The big juicy pieces of marinated chicken breast were excellent. The grilled lamb was a bit too tough, but the kofka kabob (marinated ground beef) was marvelous. They have gyros meat as well.
Any of these meats are available as a dinner or a sandwich. Dinners come with your choice of rice or fries -- we recommend the rice -- and a dinner salad. You can also get your meat in a pita sandwich, together with salad. Both are tasty; choice should depend on appetite. The dinner portions are big enough to have leftovers.
Yafa also has falafel, either as a sandwich or as part of a vegetarian dinner. The vegetarian dinner is a splendid way to get a variety of appetizer items on a single plate; ordered as a dinner you'll get a salad alongside. We liked the touch of mint in the stuffed grape leaves, and the baba ghanouj (eggplant pate) was rich and filling.
The full name of the restaurant is Yafa Grill and Pizzeria, but we recommend you completely ignore the "and Pizzeria" part. The pizzas have that really bready, soft crust, which we always pass over in favor of a thin flat crust. About 15 inches across, the pizzas come loaded with toppings. Unfortunately, the restaurant uses canned mushrooms. The sauce had no discernable oregano or garlic, and needed it. It's bland enough that most picky kids would probably like it, though.
This is a storefront cafe, and has no real ambiance, until you look up from your dinner and marvel again at how Minnesota, so far from the coasts, has become so multicultural. Yafa Grill serves a cheap meal, too, only a little more expensive than fast food, but so much tastier. Service can be slow, but we enjoyed ourselves and didn't mind.
Yafa Grill and Pizzeria
Location: 4110 Central Av., Columbia Heights
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
Service: Friendly, but slow
Sound level: Pleasant, although there is a television
Recommended dishes: Chicken shish tawook, vegetarian dinner
Prices: Sandwiches $4–$5, dinners $9–$10
Children: No special children's menu