They bragged about the Chicken Salad Afrique, but it was the muffaletta that sealed the deal.
As a non-native Texan, I was completely ignorant of the fact that Leibman’s, which recently reopened in a dapper new location, was a Houston institution and source of nostalgia for many born and bred in our fair city. Founded by Ettiene and Ralph Leibman, and now led by daughter Sharon, Leibman’s has evolved over its 40-year existence from a simple stop-and-grab deli and fine foods shop carrying then hard-to-find European cheeses and South African wine to a full-service restaurant, catering business, and gift gallery.
What has remained consistent, as evinced by the number of customers who have remained loyal over the years (and patiently awaited the reopening), is the fastidious attention paid by the family to finessing their edible offerings so that they are comfortingly familiar as well as intriguingly foreign, traditional yet with some modern tweaks.
For example, pro forma chicken salad is transformed via the addition of African spices into Chicken Salad Afrique, whose burnt yellow hue reflects its warm notes of pepper and curry. The tender shredded chicken is well complemented by chunks of celery and slivered almonds, which add a botanical and nutty crunch, respectively.
As a nod to millennials (oh those crazy kids and their food fixations!), Leibman’s also now offers an Asian Quinoa Power bowl, comprising of a base of fluffy grains topped with ancho chicken, shiitake mushrooms, red cabbage, shishito peppers, and roasted broccoli. A light teriyaki dressing provides hints of sweetness and umami to match the earthier notes of the proteins and vegetables.
Although the components of the C.A.B. (Chicken, Avocado, Bacon) Salad are ostensibly pedestrian, the bacon cured in house in combination with ultra-fresh avocado and an amazing rosemary honey dressing (which, by the way, should be sold by the bottle) rendered the ordinary extraordinary.
Finally, the piece-de-resistance, at least for me, was the muffaletta. Yes, I very much enjoyed Leibman’s Reuben, the favorite child among customers when it comes to sandwiches, but the muffaletta is hardly the ugly step-sister. On the contrary, it rivals the original version proffered at New Orleans’ Central Grocery. The layers of ham, Genoa salami, and mortadella boast their own distinct flavors thanks to individual seasonings rather than all collectively relying on just salt for taste. A lovely cape of melted provolone provides creamy balance to the cold cuts and the tangy olive salad, on point with regards to the ideal ratio of oil to fruit and flower buds.
While I am certainly very proud of my Pennsylvania roots, my gut (pun intended) response after this first lunch was to remark, “I wish I had grown up eating here!” But no matter. I can make up for lost time and catching up on what I missed will never be so delicious.
Leibman’s is also the site of seasonal special events, including an upcoming series of wine tastings ($25 per person), the first of which will be held Friday, May 25 at 6:30 p.m. Reservations can be made via phone at (281) 493-3663 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.