It should be no surprise that Harris County’s Arab-American population is twice the size of any other Texas county. And while many restaurants serving food from that part of the world label themselves as Mediterranean, we sought out our favorites specializing in the ancient and modern culinary traditions of Lebanon.
More than a bakery and several steps up from the average cafeteria-style joint, this is the home of our favorite beef and chicken shawarmas in town. The full-flavored, crisp-edged, homemade meats are served with a choice of uncommon sides (like okra and eggplant stews) and freshly baked balloons of soft pita. Pair it with a big cup of cool mint tea and sweet, chewy cheese in rosewater syrup.
In 1983, husband-and-wife Zohrab and Arpi Tcholakian began serving shawarma after he lost his job to the Energy Crisis. Now, almost 35 years later, the Lebanese natives of Armenian ancestry are still at it. Diners can try their sandwiches and platters at their family’s two grand, international markets, Phoenicia Specialty Foods. But for dishes like fried smelts, tangy muhamara dip and braised lamb shanks overseen by Arpi herself, this is the place.
Grilled dishes prepared over a charcoal fire are a centerpiece, but while the lamb kebab and half chicken are worth a try, there are also lesser-known Lebanese favorites to discover here. The Chicken Francisco, for example, which originated at this restaurant’s inspiration, the giant Barbar located in Beirut, is an unlikely combination of grilled chicken with corn, cheese, mayonnaise and pickles, best served with lemonade filled with fresh mint leaves.
Lili Bejjani’s restaurant is the perfect respite after a day spent up the street from the Galleria. Visit on a Saturday, the only day Bejani serves kibbeh nayyeh, a finely chopped steak tartare. Follow it with a kebab plate and an order of tabbouleh salad.
There are other places to get manakish in Houston, but this is the place, and it’s almost exclusively devoted to the Lebanese pizza. On weekends, get shawarma in a wrap or on a pie. The rest of the week, toppings are decidedly simple: halloumi cheese and sesame seeds, spiced ground meat and cheese, or spinach. Wash it down with a bottle of Turkish wild-strawberry-flavored mineral water.
Settle in with a Lebanese beer on the patio, and either breathe in or try to avoid the hookah smoke. The Mary’z Sampler is the smartest way to try a cross-section of the pastries that are the restaurant’s strong suit. The kibbehs all but melt when you bite in, grape leaves are suitably tangy, and spinach pies are fried for an extra level of flavor.
Lebanon’s time as a French colony gives this restaurant both its name and its rich desserts, like crème brûlée. But the most lovable choices are deeply Levantine, whether the homemade maqanek sausage, flavored with cinnamon and lemon sauce; the ultra-smooth hummus; or the puckery, mint-suffused Lebanese salad—and lucky you, the latter two come with all entrées.
The long-marinated shawarma here is stuffed into pitas or served in platters paired with garlicky sautéed spinach or gyro meat. We like the thinly sliced, deep-red chicken shawarma the most, especially served with tangy hummus and rice pilaf dotted with peas and almonds. There’s nothing like lemon-and-rose-spiked black tea to get you in the mood for a meal.
The lemon “mintade” is the best frozen drink in town, and the fresh-baked, puffy bread with za’atar-flavored oil could make a meal in itself. But save room for the sayadieh, an elegant dish of fish laid over spiced rice and topped with almonds and charred onions. For dessert, the cheesy konafa naama is served hot from the pan and flavored with rose.
Lebanon’s colonial past is clear in the offerings here. Take home European layer cakes, a range of Mediterranean baklavas, and buttery Lebanese pistachio pastries all in one bag. Or settle on one and eat it at a table out front—we have a longstanding addiction to chef-owner Suzie Elaridi’s crumbly ghraybeh cookies.