Airstrikes, chemical weapons, refugee crisis. The words we associate with Syria in 2017 are some of the ugliest imaginable. Perhaps there's never been a better time to cherish the good things that have come out of the country. Like Damascus native Faysal Haddad.
In 2000, he opened his first Island Grill, a health-focused restaurant with a Mediterranean edge. The first, on Woodway Drive, was in a space recently vacated by a place called Smoothie Island Juice Bar, which gave telecommunications expert Haddad a name and part of the concept. Two others locations followed, on Bunker Hill Road and Bellaire Boulevard. Last week, a fourth opened in the former Little Liberty space in Rice Village, coincidentally across the way from Persian-owned Hungry's, making that slice of Rice Boulevard a tiny taste of the Middle East.
Haddad arrived in the United States in 1982 and landed in Houston in 1985. Though he didn't yet know he would one day become a restaurateur, he was armed with his mother's recipes. But in 2000, they came very much in handy. The nutty hummus, served with warm pita, is one example. A smoky new baba ghanoush, for now only available at Rice Village, is another.
But for diners who want to truly sample a bit of Syria, to reflect on the fact that great taste is truly universal, there's nothing like the kabob plate. A Greek salad, pita and griddled onions provide a base for long-marinated meat. The garlicky beef is certified Angus filet mignon, so tender it barely needs a knife. But the yellow-tinged chicken packs an acidic punch that can't help but make you a bit more aware of your surroundings. Cradled in pita with creamy garlic sauce, it's even better—a fact reflected by the popularity of the grilled chicken pita sandwich. Haddad says that he's known plenty of college students over the years who stop in for one of the wraps before they go home when returning for the holidays.
And for those who want a taste of Texas, too, the new location is turning out freshly baked biscuits, stacked with fried chicken. Why not pair a honeyed biscuit with some hummus or baba ghanoush? It could be the most Houstonian thing you eat all day.