Category Archives: Middle Eastern

Fusion Taco

IMG_3231_FotorTaco wars are constant and usually heated in Houston. Some Houstonians are purists wanting their tacos with specific ingredients and from specific family-owned venues located in Hispanic communities. Others are more adventurous, leaning toward the fusion fare originating in the food truck arena now infiltrating every neighbourhood. Some people may still be surprised to find tacos with a Korean bent, filled with bulgogi, kimchi, cilantro, queso fresco and gochujang, but locally these have been around for decades and there are dozens of vendors dishing them up daily.

I stumbled across a new fusion bent on tacos at a venue near downtown’s Market Square, aptly named, Fusion Taco. I was surprised by the combinations; mostly Indian, Japanese and Lebanese. However, I was not surprised they started out as a food truck not too long ago.

Casual, open, lively. The floor-to-ceiling glass front facing Market Square makes for good people watching. Weekdays the crowd tend to be suits from the oil biz, weekends it tends towards those gathering for events at Toyota Center, Minute Maid or the Theatre District.


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Mostly wins. The Chicken Tikka Masala taco, which is an open face naan ‘taco’ topped with a dollop of spicy, creamy tikka masala sauce and ridiculously tender chicken, was a win. The Chicken Tikka taco is a ‘special’ taco which are larger and quite filling. For vegetarians, there is also a Tofu Tikka Masala taco.

The Agedashi Tofu taco was also a win, several panko-fried tofu cubes topped with a cabbage mixture tossed in a sweet soy, ginger and garlic sauce. A good texture play – soft tortillas, crunchy cabbage, toothy tofu.

The short-rib taco, not so good. The meat was stringy, overcooked and lacked flavour.

Counter-order, table delivery. I’ve been three times, mostly for lunch rush, order to delivery times are 10-15 minutes. Everyone is very friendly and helpful. The only downside is at lunch rush you might have to bus an empty table yourself, since the patron turnover is quick and their staff sometimes cannot keep up.

Regular tacos are $2-3. ‘Specials’, $5. At lunch they have a special meal deal – 2 tacos, one side, one drink, $11.

Lunch: March 2015

Fusion Taco | 801 Congress | HTX 77002


Tunisian Chili | Lamb, Chickpeas, Harissa

One more candidate for the Chili and Stout pot luck – this Tunisian lamb and chickpea chili.

My usual statement about Middle Eastern items apply to this post as well. This recipe uses Harissa, which is a well-known spice paste used across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Its probably better not to ask for its origins or ‘official’ recipe. If you do, you’re intentionally subjecting yourself to endless diatribe and you won’t get a reasonable answer.


  • 1 16oz bag dried chickpeas
  • 3 T Harissa
  • 1 t Chicken Stock
  • 4 C Water

Soak chickpeas overnight in a couple of cups of water. Strain. Toss the chickpeas and other ingredients into a slow cooker on high for about 2-3 hours, strain and reserve in the fridge.

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  • 1/2 – 1 lb Ground Lamb
  • 1/2 – 1 lb Ground Turkey
  • 2-3 C Harissa Spiked Chickpeas
  • 1 Purple Onion, chopped
  • 1 Red Bell Pepper, chopped
  • 4 Roma Tomatoes, chopped
  • 6 Garlic Cloves, chopped
  • 2 T Cilantro, chopped
  • 2 T Mint, chopped
  • 3 T Harissa
  • 3 T Olive Oil
  • 1 t Salt
  • 1 t Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/4 – 1/2 t Cinnamon

In a large pan over medium-high heat add the olive oil. Add onions, saute until golden, about 5-7 minutes. Add bell pepper and garlic, sautee another 2-3 minutes. Add ground meats, stirring and breaking apart until the meat is no longer red. Add tomato, saute for another few minutes, until tomatoes release their juices. Reduce to low, add salt, pepper, cinnamon, harissa, and chickpeas. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Uncover, add mint and cilantro. Cook uncovered for an additional 10-15 minutes or until desired consistency.


Good and definitely different for a chili.

Usually I make my own harissa but I had time constraints so I bought some from our middle eastern grocery. It was ok in a pinch but the brand I used had less of a lemon flavour than I’m used to. Also, the paprika flavour was not a prominent nor as hot as my scratch version. Next time I’ll either make my own or add an additional tablespoon of lemon zest and hot paprika to the mix.




Syrian Meatballs

There are a couple of Syrian brothers I talk to on a regular basis, good guys who are so very, very happy not to be in Syria. They are in the food industry locally so I usually hit them up for authentic Syrian recipes, which I invariably change to make more healthy. Its the flavour I’m interested in, other people can fret over the authenticity.

Here is one I recently learned from the Brothers. These are typically made with lamb, beef or some combination thereof but I subbed for a chicken-turkey combo. Also they used butter, I subbed with olive oil.

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Spice Mix

  •  1T Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 T Ground Allspice
  • 1 t Cinnamon
  • 1 t Salt
  • 1/2 t Ground Cardamom
  • 1/2 t Ground Ginger
  • 1/4 t Ground Cloves
  • 1/4 t Nutmeg


  • 1 lb Ground Chicken (original recipe, beef)
  • 1 lb Ground Turkey (original recipe, lamb)
  • 1/3 C Cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 t Salt
  • 1 t Ground Black Pepper
  • 3 T olive oil (original recipe, butter)


  • 2-3 C Tomato, fresh, chopped
  • 1 Red Onion, chopped
  • Spice Mix
  • Chopped Cilantro
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Combine Spice Mix ingredients put aside.

Combine meatball ingredients, minus oil and shape into 1″ ball. Heat oil over medium high heat, add meatballs and brown on all sides – about 5-7 minutes. Remove meatballs to plate.

In the same pan add onions and sautee until golden, add tomatoes, reduce heat to medium low and cook covered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add meatballs, stir to coat, cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Add Spice Mix but before you do …

Note: You might want to start with just 1-2 t of Spice Mix to see how you like it, the flavours are strong. I added the lot without so much as a thought; tastes vary.

Add spice mix, stir and let cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat, add cilantro, stir, then serve immediately with Basmati.


If you want to start a flight between people from different Middle Eastern countries, just ask which country invented Hummus and who makes the best version. I tried this one night in NYC with an Israeli, Jordanian and Lebanese at the table. Protracted verbal sparring ensued but in the end, they all agreed that the ingredients were the same but proportions were different. Each still insisted their country’s version was best- no surprise there.

You can also start a fight between any two Arabic speakers by asking who makes the most authentic Shurbah. Shurbah is an Arabic word loosely meaning ‘soup’. Unlike the Hummus argument, which largely illustrates country-particular ingredient proportions, Shurbah  has village and sometimes family-specific ingredients and methods. Its also quite personal since Shurbah is often the fast-breaking meal during Ramadan.

This version is from a Yemeni Jew I know in NYC. Its different from most versions both in the spices and the meat used in the preparation.

The first step is to make the Hawaij, or spice, used to season the meatballs and soup base; this should give you enough for both. Put all of this into a Ziploc and shake. Done.


  • 1 t Aleppo Pepper
  • 1/2 t Zatar
  • 1/2 t Ground Clove
  • 1/2 t Ground Cardamom
  • 3/4  t Tumeric
  • 1/2 t Cumin
  • 1/2 t Coriander
  • 3/4 t Black Pepper
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  • 1 lb Ground Turkey
  • 1/2 Onion, finely chopped
  • 3 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 t Hawaij
  • 1/2 t Salt
  • 2 T Olive Oil


  • 8 C Chicken/Veg Stock
  • 1 Onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 Carrots, chopped
  • 2 Potatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 C Milk
  • 1 1/2 C Oatmeal
  • 2 t Hawaij
  • 2 T Olive Oil

To make the meatballs. Heat 2T oil over medium-high heat. Saute onions for 5-7 until golden then add garlic and sautee for several more minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Mix onion/garlic mixture with ground turkey, spices and salt. Cover and let rest in the fridge for at least one hour. Roll mixture into 1″ balls. Heat the other 2T oil over medium heat. Add meatballs and cook through, turning occasionally, about 7-8 minutes. Remove to a plate, cover  to keep warm.

To make the soup. Heat the remaining 2T oil over medium high heat. Saute onions for 5-7 until IMG_1763golden then add garlic and sautee for several more minutes, Add Hawaij, sautee for an additional minute. Add potatoes, carrots and stock, raise heat to boiling, then lower to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Process the soup with a stick blender to break up potato and carrot a little. Add oatmeal and cook for another 30 minutes, tasting, stirring and adjusting seasonings occasionally (more Hawaij, salt if needed). Before serving add the milk and stir for another minute.

To serve, plate up the soup, a few meatballs, some chives, Zatar, hot sauce or whatever else suits your tastes.

A vegetarian version is easily made by subbing veg stock for chicken stock and grilled tofu sausages instead of the meatballs. Go vegan by also omitting the milk.


Wedged between Flatiron and Koreatown near Madison Square,  ilili, which is billed both specifically as Lebanese and generally as Mediterranean, turns out seriously delicious tapas-sized plates.

Warm, calm, softly modern and for NYC, quite spacious. Good spot for conversation without screaming.

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I won’t drone on about each of the 10 dishes but the highlights for me were …

Strawberry Aleppo Margarita:  I love fruit and pepper in the same glass. Fruit from the muddled strawberry blends and is electrified by the tequila and Aleppo pepper; contrasting salt rim adds dimension.

Beef Kibbeh: Different prep than I’ve found in the middle east. This is more a dumpling; spiced beef with hints of onion, garlic and pine nuts stuffed into a casing of what tasted like finely ground kasha, fried greaselessly then served with a cooling yogurt sauce.

Lamb Meatballs: Gorgeous sumac-spiked tomato sauce infused the dense lamb spheres, which should only be picked up with the fresh baked pita.

Unassuming, knowledgeable, good judges of pace.

Reasonable. 10 plates, 4 drinks, $160

ilili’s heavy use of sumac and aleppo may cause some people to think Syrian origins while others may think Lebanese. Culinary distinctions are difficult to partition into countries when talking about the middle east but this does not detract from ilili’s net effect – a good dining experience.

Lunch: 28 Sept 2013

ilili | 236 5th Ave | NYC 10001


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I was curious about the big explosion of mixed use real estate around the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. 30 or so blocks of it snuck in while I wasn’t looking and it’s growing still. I’ve always liked this area of Fort Worth with its density of parks, museums and crazy criss-cross streets, some still with the original bricks from a horse-based transport era gone by.

I walked the area opposite of the Modern Art Museum and stumbled across Terra, a pan middle eastern restaurant buried underneath a tumble of post modern apartments. Anytime is the right time for kebabs!

The interior is soft mod and comfortable, it’s lively without the need to scream through a conversation. Casual, mixed crowd, good patio space, which is probably quite nice on a day that isn’t 103.

Chicken Kebab. So, I forget that the crowd in Fort Worth likes volume which is the polar IMG_1216opposite to the crowd living in its younger sister, Dallas. I asked Server if it was a double order since the plate weighed 3 pounds. Server laughed a little at my surprised expression and said “Good luck and welcome to Fort Worth!”. The chicken was marinaded in saffron and cream then grilled; pleasantly charred on the out, juicy and flavorful on the in. The rice had a distinct flavor of chelo, the Persian saffron rice, but the long grain rice was mixed with a pan fried vermicelli giving it a more silky texture; perfect. Grilled vegetables were just that although did pick up a faint lemon and pepper taste on what was mostly yellow bells, zucchini, button mushrooms and carrots; good pairing with the rice and chicken.

I could barely finish a third of the kebab, so it made for nice snacks later.

Friendly, informative and efficient, apparently with a good sense of humor.

Prices are a little more than normal about $15-20 for the kebabs but factor in that its seriously enough for two people. Unless you live in Fort Worth.

IMG_1213If you are ever in the Fort Worth near the area hosting the Botanic Gardens, Modern Art Museum and The Kimbell, I would definitely hop over University Ave and take a meal break at Terra. Just remember to bring a friend so you can split one Fort Worth sized plate. Also, parking in this area is completely insane so I’d leave your car at the museum and just walk the few blocks; it will take less time and be more enjoyable.

Dinner: 11 July 2013

Terra | 2973 Crockett St | Fort Worth, TX 76107


IMG_1072Several friends simultaneously recommended Phoenicia to me. Not that Phoenicia is new to Houston, it isn’t, but the location downtown is relatively new and they said it was HUGE. Typically I avoid the eastern edge of downtown, it is dense with sports arenas and the prospect of running into herds of drunk Texans pissed off because their team lost, doesn’t appeal. But a HUGE grocery specializing in middle eastern fare, I’m there.

I’ve been test driving Phoenicia downtown for a few months now and I have to say, its impressive. It is HUGE, two stories and its not just a grocery, its also a restaurant and bar and apparently live music often plays on a small stage near the back. If you want to explore before its gets busy, try a Saturday around 9a.

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As a grocery, it is full service; meat counter with a good selection of halal items, limited but fresh produce, rows of off-topic legumes, spices labeled in Arabic, stacks of fresh baked breads, cheeses galore and even a decent set of Le Cruset cookware. However, for me, the standouts are

  • Deli Counter : Hummus, baba ganoush, falafel and other mid-east salads you wont find anywhere near downtown. Definitely snag a container of basil chicken salad to stuff into your fresh baked pita!
  • Dessert Counter: Freshly made baklava, halva and other desserts I could not pronounce even if I could remember my Arabic.
  • Wine: Upstairs you find what is quite possibly the oddest selection of wine in town. Standard products from France, California, Argentina and Australia exist but notice the options from Armenia, Jordan, Lebanon and Croatia.
  • Condiments: Also upstairs, the largest selection of non-Italian olive oils I’ve seen as well as a good selection of tahini. I use loads of olive oil and tahini but other ethic stores only offer them in industrial sizes; Phoenicia has smaller sizes for those who are not feeding a family of 12.
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Phoenicia is now a staple for my weekly acquisitions and I’m thrilled that the owners, one from Armenia, the other from Lebanon have brought authentic mid-east fare into the downtown area!

Phoenicia | 1001 Austin | Houston, TX 77010


Th-upAt my full time job I work with a very diverse group of people, and I mean that in every sense. We are from different countries, religions, ages and preferences. While a smaller group of us make our ritual bi-weekly run to AKA Sushi for the 2-roll lunch special, its somewhat more challenging to find a place the whole lot of us will enjoy.

To that end, I thought Saba’s might be universally appealing. Turns out – I was right.

Saba’s is a kosher, Israeli-run restaurant and to my knowledge the only one in Houston serving Israeli dishes like Shakshuka and Malawach. I noticed on this trip it seems their menu has expanded but I was happy to see Shakshuka on the menu.  Shakshuka, in case you’re aren’t familiar, starts with a base of tomatoes, onions and pepper, seasoned and cooked down. Next a couple of depressions are made in the base then eggs are cracked into them and allowed to poach. The whole lot is typically served with pita, hummus and Israeli salad; finely diced tomato and cucumber, usually accompanied by self-serve lemon juice, olive oil and hot pepper.

On a trip to Israel to visit family, I think I irritated the hell out of my cousin, since I made her stop at every single place serving Shakshuka between Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea . At least I have a surrogate now and its a little closer.


Saba’s is a small family-run restaurant with very little pretense; its clean, pleasant and efficient but the focus is on the plate.


So, I was a little worried about dropping 14 extra people on their typically light-traffic lunch hour but they didn’t miss a beat. Israeli’s, in case you didn’t know, are a frighteningly efficient lot. They can also be painfully blunt and short, however this is not the case at Saba’s.


I keep ordering the Israeli dishes: Shakshuka and Malawach and both are exceptional. I like the combinations of flavors and textures in Shakshuka. The base is flavorful and thick, the eggs firm, the pita hot and soft, the hummus creamy and rich and the Israeli salad is fresh and crunchy. I’m not sure how they season their base but when I make it at home I keep it simple: salt, Aleppo pepper, lemon juice and maybe a pinch of cayenne.



Aside from the fish dishes, most everything is $10 or less. Also, should you want to take home some hummus they have a small ($4) and large ($7) to go option. Pita included.

If you’re ever looking for a casual place to take a mixed group of people or you just want to try a typical Israeli dish, I highly recommend Saba’s. Its not very visible from the street but it is located exactly at the stated address. Also, be aware, they are closed on Saturday for Sabbath.

Lunch: 13 May 2013

Saba’s | 9704 Fondren | Houston TX 77096