When you go to a Lebanese restaurant, there are certain dishes you likely already have in mind. Perhaps you're craving shish taouk or shawarma. Maybe it's baba ghanoush or kibbeh. The more adventurous readers may even be seeking the city's best lamb brains. But when you arrive at the counter at Barbar Mediterranean Grill, asking for what is uniquely Lebanese on the menu (as opposed to generally Middle Eastern), you'll be led in a direction you probably don't expect.
On Friday night, the gentleman manning the counter said that while the kebabs are indeed tasty, the sandwich section is populated by Lebanese inventions. Specifically, dishes popularized at the original Barbar, Beirut's giant, 24/7 culinary emporium that specializes in everything from manakish (thin Lebanese pizzas) to ice cream on a menu of more than 200 items. It's responsible for the chicken fajita sandwich, for one, a creation which involves not only the expected fillings, but also mushrooms and avocado sauce. The counter staffer also told me that the burger at Barbar is also the variety served most commonly in the homeland: a patty topped with ketchup and cheese but also coleslaw and fries.
But ultimately, he pointed me toward the Chicken Francisco. In a section about the original Barbar, part of the chapter "My Lebanese Sandwich" in the book Transit Beirut, authors Maher Kassar and Ziad Halwani describe the sandwich this way, "The Francisco Sub with chicken, corn, mayonnaise and soya sauce was introduced in a period when Beiruti palates began appreciating Asian food." What sounds simple in practice is both stranger and more comforting than the description implies.
It's no chicken salad sandwich. Instead, a crisp section of baguette is filled with soy-flavored pulled chicken. Despite Kassar and Halwani's assessment, this is where the Asian influence ends. Really, it's as much a manner of salting as it is a nod to China or Japan. And then there are the sweet kernels of corn, which pop alongside thin slices of sour, saline pickles. And yes, it's all bound with mayo and a layer of lettuce. And it just tastes right, whether it's your first taste or your hundredth.
Get fries on the side to dip either in your excess mayo (it will fall out), or the garlic sauce that comes with your accompanying mixed grill (it's char-grilled and is among the best around). But if you want to taste Lebanon, the real "I just need a quick sandwich" Lebanon, Barbar is your place.