Middle ground

Smack in the center of America, Wichita nevertheless offers great food from the Middle East

By Joe Stumpe

People come to N&J Cafe all the way from Kansas City.

People come to N&J Cafe all the way from Kansas City.

One of the best home cooks we know finds herself in N & J Cafe nearly every time her son, also a foodie, visits from out of town. Although he lives in Seattle, that Pacific Northwest metropolis can’t quite match Wichita when it comes to authentic Middle Eastern food. And his mother is happy to oblige her son’s hankering.

"I always get the sampler platter,” she said during a lunch last month. “I want all the flavors.” Thanks to immigration, those flavors — olive oil and garlic, pita bread and feta cheese — have been a part of Wichita’s dining scene for decades. Think about it: you can’t swing a restaurant menu in this town without hitting a plate of hummus or fattoush salad, and many of the city’s best-known restaurateurs hail from Lebanon or one its neighbors in the Middle East.

But perhaps because that influence is so diffuse, the number of restaurants serving only Middle Eastern food is relatively small. Two that have been doing it for years are N & J Cafe on the east side and Byblos on the west.

Neither is located on one of the city’s busy “restaurant rows,” but both have survived by dishing up tasty, reasonably priced food in homey settings. Both are also known for their accompanying markets, where you can buy everything from imported olives and spices to tea to hookah pipes. Both are family operations.Ilham Saad and her husband, Kamal, started Byblos 20 years ago, offering what she calls “typical homemade Lebanese cooking. It’s every day freshly made.”

The hummus at Byblos is one of their most popular items.

The hummus at Byblos is one of their most popular items.

And it’s time-consuming to make. “It takes five hours to cook the meat” for her gyros, Ilham Saad said. Fattoush salad, hummus and shawarma are among her biggest sellers, but there are daily specials like a beef-and-green bean stew and mousaka that are even more typical of what a Lebanese home cook might make.

Despite Wichita’s long Middle Eastern heritage, Saad said she was warned that her restaurant would fail when it opened; after all, her fellow immigrants could make the food on their own, and many Americans were still unfamiliar with it. But just within the last year, Saad has found a national distributor for her Inspiration brand of salad dressing, and she hopes to do the same with a line of spice blends.

“I’ve had a lot of customers say, ‘If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have known anything about these ingredients,’” she said.

Kamal Saad died late last year, but at least one of the couple’s daughters can usually found waiting tables are helping in the kitchen.

The growth of N & J can be traced by the series of dining rooms that have been added over the years. Nonetheless, “it’s a homey-type place,” said Bettina Tobassi, daughter of owner Mona Srour. “They (customers) don’t feel they’re in a chain-type restaurant.”

N & J’s bakery produces pita bread that’s served in restaurants (and homes) all around town. “People come here from Kansas City to buy our (pita) chips and hummus,” Tobassi said.

Most of all, Tobassi thinks customers appreciate the time that goes into making favorites like the stuffed grape leaves.“How do you roll grapes leaves except one by one?” she said.

Joe Stumpe is the former food editor of the Wichita Eagle. This is the first in a series of articles about some of Wichita’s lesser-known restaurants.

WHERE TO GO

Byblos 3088 W. 13th, 943-3999

N & J 5600 E. Lincoln, 681-3975

These restaurants feature Middle Eastern dishes among broader menus:

Adrian’s 2121 N. Rock Road, 681-1144. Appetizer platter boasts six favorites — hummus, baba ghannouj, falafel, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves and pita.

Piccadilly 7728 E. Central, 681-1100. Check out Lebanese night on Wednesday, when a large selection of “mezzes,” or appetizers, are offered.

Bagatelle 6801 E. Harry. Popularized tasty and inexpensive “pitzas,” in which toppings are baked on top of pita loaves.

Bella Luna (three locations).

Le Monde (two locations).

Uptown Bistro 301 N. Mead, 262-3232

WHAT TO ORDER

Here’s what’s in some of the Middle Eastern dishes you’ll find on local menus:

APPETIZERS

Hummus The essential appetizer, made of chickpeas pureed with garlic, lemon juice and tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds). It’s usually served with pita bread or toasted pita chips.

Baba Ghannouj Similar to hummus, but made with roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas.

Kibbeh A mixture of ground beef, cracked wheat, pine nuts and onions; can be served as a kind of meat loaf, meat patty or as a topping for pita bread.

SALADS

Fattoush This could be Wichita’s signature salad, it’s on so many menus. When done right, the mixture of lettuce and other raw vegetables, toasted pita chips and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice is addictive.

Tabouli A little more of an acquired taste, this salad features chopped parsley, tomatoes and cracked wheat.

ENTREES

Shawarma Resembles a Greek gyro in that it consists of roasted meat and sauce wrapped in pita bread. But the seasoning is different — thanks to lemony sumac — the pita is thin rather than doughy, and the sauce is tahini- instead of yogurt-based. It all adds up to an irresistible combination.

Falafel Patties made of ground fava beans, usually deep-fried and served with pita bread and tahini sauce. A favorite of vegetarians.

Kabobs The Middle Eastern version of skewered meat served all over the Old World.

DESSERT

Baklava Layers of flaky pasty, nuts and honey will satisfy the sweetest tooth.

 
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