Gaping at the television, I knock my water glass over with my elbow and make a mess all over the table -- exactly the sort of thing I was trying not to do. Unfortunately, eating the sampler plate at Droubi's Bakery & Delicatessen while watching a big-breasted belly dancer in a purple push-up bra undulate erotically on TV is beyond my multitasking capabilities. I am usually pretty talented at eating in front of the television, but this video -- available at the Video Plus kiosk inside Droubi's, according to the table-tent advertisement -- is more distracting than the average NFL playoff game. And this spread is more elaborate than a pizza. The sampler plate includes a dolma, dabs of hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh, your choice of Lebanese or Greek salad, and one of the meats from the buffet line along with rice or potatoes or both -- plus Droubi's fresh-baked pita bread. The food is outstanding.
My kids and I pick up a sack of goodies at Droubi's whenever we're in the mood for healthy Middle Eastern food. An "O" has fallen off the sign outside, so I told them the name of the place was DR. UBI'S. Needless to say, they don't mind trips to this doctor. It's a sprawling bazaar with all kinds of bottled, canned, dried and preserved stuff as well as a huge assortment of bulk Middle Eastern items. The most amazing thing is how cheap everything is.
In fact, once you've seen Droubi's, it's difficult to buy this stuff anywhere else. A pound of jumbo kalamatas from their olive section goes for $2.99; the Lebanese green olives are $2.69. Compare that to Central Market, where bulk olives are $5.99 a pound, or Whole Foods, where they're $8 a pound. Lots of markets sell Droubi's pita bread, but at the store on Hillcroft, a bag of six small pitas costs $1 and the bread is so fresh that the plastic bag is usually still steamy.
Droubi's Bakery Sunday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (buffet line closes half an hour earlier).
Sampler plate: $6.99
Daily plate: $6.99
Shawarma plate: $5.99
Shawarma sandwich: $2.99
Super poor boy: $2.79
Pistachio baklava: 50 cents
Date cookie: 60 cents
Belly dance video: $30
Today's meat choices on the buffet line are roasted chicken and chicken stewed with tomatoes. I opt for the stewed chicken. The only meat special at Droubi's I really get excited about is the lamb shank. The shanks are braised in a dark sauce with a stunning cinnamon aroma. It seems the longer they cook, the more tender they get. The stewed chicken, on the other hand, is starting to get a little dry. But stuffed in a piece of pita with some of the dips, it tastes fine. I sample it with different combinations while, on the TV screen, a new dancer takes the stage. This one is a bleached blond in a blue hula skirt. She's not quite as amply endowed as the last dancer, but she has a unique shimmy.
Watching TV while eating Droubi's takeout is my new Houston habit. For most of my life, dinner in front of the TV has meant pizza. I grew up on East Coast pizza and count myself among the coal-oven connoisseurs. Great pizza has a crisp, bready crust. But most Americans don't care about crust; they rate pizza by how much junk is piled on top of it. As a result, mass-market pizzerias underproof their dough (not allowing it to rise enough) and then dock the hell out of it (eliminating bubbles with a studded roller), so the pie doesn't get completely soggy under the load of lunch meat. The result is a flat, insipid pizza. I can't choke down this tomato-sauce-covered cardboard, so I've had to adjust my television dining habits.
There aren't many Neapolitans in my neighborhood, but there are a lot of Middle Easterners -- which, I suppose, is why the pizza sucks but the pita is outrageous. Of the several Droubi's locations around town, I'm partial to the big one at 7333 Hillcroft because the bakery is here. I like to linger by the bread rack and feel the packages to see which breads are still warm. If the triangular spinach pies are hot, I pick some up. The spinach is seasoned with onion and lemon and wet with olive oil. I also love the zatar bread. Zatar is an herb blend made with lots of tart sumac. The bread looks like a pita covered with oregano. I like it toasted for breakfast with tea and hard-boiled eggs. But be careful, because the lemony green herbs fly all over the place as you eat it. The stuffed breads known as meat pies and cheese pies are also favorites. If you heat these up in the toaster oven until the bottom is crispy, your kids will forget all about pizza.
Granted, laying out a Middle Eastern TV dinner takes a bit more preparation than opening a pizza box. You have to open several plastic containers. It's better if you slice up a tomato and rinse off a little lettuce, too. Anchovies are always a nice touch. And then there are the optional steps. For instance, I like to marinate the olives.
I learned everything I know about Middle Eastern food from my friend Jim Shahin, who grew up Lebanese-American in Philadelphia. Shahin puts his olives in a colander and rinses off the brine. When they're dry, he puts them in a jar with some dried pepper flakes and garlic cloves and covers them with olive oil. The first time I tried it at my house, I was reluctant to use that much expensive olive oil. But I got over it. Not only does the marinating improve the taste of the olives, it also improves the taste of the olive oil. You can use the oil as a salad dressing or a dip for bread, or anywhere the taste of olives, peppers and garlic is appropriate -- which is to say, everywhere.
Shahin likes the stinky Bulgarian sheep's milk feta, which goes for $2.99 a pound, and so do I. But if you like your feta mild, try the French stuff for $3.99. The hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh at Droubi's are the definitive versions, as far as I'm concerned. But if you want to insist that I taste your Lebanese grandmother's rendition, I could probably be persuaded.
The most popular lunch item at Droubi's, judging by the noontime traffic, is a beef shawarma sandwich. The counter man slices some meat from the revolving pile of seasoned beef on the big vertical roaster and heats it on the grill. The meat is then rolled up in a toasted pita with onions, to-matoes, parsley, yogurt and condiments. It's an excellent and inexpensive sandwich. A chicken shawarma is also available. The one thing not to try here is the soggy premade poor boy. It has lots of ham and salami and cheese on it, but no condiments, which makes for some very dull eating.
Every time I go to Droubi's, I sample something new. I can't say that I loved the pickled turnip, but I'm pretty fond of the pickled eggplant. And the dates are amazing. I haven't tried the fresh ones yet -- they come in the spring -- but I have sampled several varieties of dried dates: Deglets are so wet they taste like honey; medjools are chewier.
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The gooey date cookies in the pastry case look mighty tempting too. After I finish off my lunch plate I wander over and check out the possibilities: a choice of walnut or pistachio baklava, phyllo swirls, angel-hair pasta nests in honey, coconut balls, macaroons and cookies of all kinds. To heighten the temptation, everything is ridiculously cheap. I get a piece of pistachio baklava, a date cookie and a cup of hot tea.
The third belly dancer is escorted to the stage by a bunch of guys with scarves on their heads who look like pirates. She has some shiny hoops dangling off her red dress. At first, I thought they were handcuffs. As she shakes her booty, I absentmindedly bite into the baklava, which oozes honey down my chin. I blush as I search for a napkin.
The cookie tastes like a giant "date Newton." The pastries are so good, I'm tempted to try the walnut baklava. So much for my January diet resolutions. But hey, if you're going to eat sweets, they ought to be made of honey, dried fruits, nuts and other such natural ingredients, right? That makes it healthy.
It's fun to wander around the store on your way out and browse through the olive oils, spice mixes and frozen halal meats. Take a look at the videos, too. Belly Dance 2000 is one hour and 40 minutes long with ten different dancers. What a great Middle Eastern dinner party you could put together with foods from DR. UBI'S. And I have a great idea for the entertainment