See a slideshow of everything Abdallah's Bakery has to offer.
There's no good shawarma in Houston.
At least, that's the story my Lebanese friend was trying to sell me a few weeks ago.
3939 Hillcroft, 713-952-4747.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Four-vegetable plate: $6.99
Kibbe plate: $9.99
Falafel shawarma: $3.99
Shawarma and one side: $5.99
Shish kabob plate: $11.99
Kibbe nayyeh: $10.99
Daily special: $9.99
"Have you been to Abdallah's?" I asked her. She had not. "You're Lebanese, and you haven't been to Abdallah's? We're fixing this immediately."
Over a chicken shawarma with fresh, tangy tabbouleh on the side, my friend said happily through a mouthful of food: "Oh God, this is so good." She speared a piece of stewed okra off my plate, then followed it with a forkful of nutty rice. "This tastes just like my mama's food!" She appeared to be in Levantine food heaven.
It's not entirely her fault that she'd never been to this reliable Middle Eastern outpost. My friend has only been in Houston for three years, after all, and Abdallah's Bakery itself seems to fly remarkably under the radar despite serving fantastic food — especially during lunch — for the last dozen years.
And it's not just the lunch line where Abdallah's shines: The restaurant's attached bakery turns out plenty of Lebanese sweets and some of the most reliably delicious pita bread in town. Yes, it's the same pita bread you see for sale at Whole Foods and many other Middle Eastern restaurants throughout the city, and the same pita bread that the Houston Press gave a Best of Houston® award to back in 2008. And it's this pita bread which makes the shawarma here so irresistible. The fresh, soft sheets of bread soak up the tahini paste and juices from the lightly spiced chicken inside. Eating the shawarma, which is quickly pressed on a grill before hitting your plate, is an adventure in trying to keep those juices from running thickly down your arms.
"This," said my friend as she polished hers off, hands and fingers now covered with shawarma juice, "is exactly how a shawarma should taste." One wicked rumor about Houston dispelled, several thousand more to go.
The lunch line at Abdallah's was oddly quiet a week ago. The usual retinue of local office workers was there, but the cozy space — all low ceilings and low lighting, even during the daytime — seemed to be only half full. The same scene greeted me at an early dinner a few days later. What was going on?
And then my dining companion reminded me: It's Ramadan. Good Muslims — "not like me," she grinned as she ate a plate of shish taouk — are fasting during the day. It made for an odd dinner, indulging in Lebanese food during the daylight hours, when so many Lebanese Muslims couldn't.
The Lebanese are known in the Levant — the historic collection of countries in the Middle East that includes Syria, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, the Palestinian territories and Iraq — for being the great cooks of the region. Just as France is looked to in Europe as having the finest cuisine, so is Lebanon in the Middle East.
Abdallah's has done its best to continue that tradition of quality here in Houston, consistently offering some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city. There are a few areas in which it falls down — wara'enab (stuffed grape leaves) taste canned, the leaves themselves overly fibrous, and the hummus could be much richer and tangier — but it's fine food on the whole.
The first time I took my Lebanese dining companion to Abdallah's, she stood mesmerized in front of the cash register, amazed at the wealth of authentic food the restaurant offers. "They even have kibbe nayyeh!" she exclaimed.
"The line starts over there!" came a sharp-tongued snap. It was the owner, telling us to move out of the way (although there was no one behind us). My friend simply laughed. "It's just like being in my mama's house."
Service can be a little bit iffy at Abdallah's. They're busy people running a busy shop, and they don't always have time for niceties. You may also find yourself shocked at the way they'll heat your plate in the microwave before serving it to you in the steam table line. But at least they're serving your food to you piping hot instead of lukewarm. It's only a minor complaint to me, but it's turned several people off the place in the past, so take note if you're not a fan of nuking.
On the other hand, the food is so good you'll likely stop caring pretty quickly that it was reheated in a microwave oven before serving: It really is just like Mom's house in a way. Comfort food served in large portions by a clucking tongue and a watchful eye.
One of the best options here is the vegetable plate, a mere $7 that nets you a massive selection of richly flavored veggies from the steam table. You could easily share the plate — which comes with four vegetables — with a friend. The stewed okra is always delicious in its tangy tomato sauce, as is stuffed cabbage and the smooth, elegantly smoky baba ghanoush. When it's available on the steam table, the stuffed eggplant with pine nuts is also a can't-miss dish.
If I could eat only three things here, over and over and over again, it would be the tabbouleh, the pita bread and the splendid falafel. These three items, so poorly constructed at other restaurants, are made expertly here. The falafel are huge and fluffy, not the awful wads of densely packed, miserably green-tinted chickpeas that have the consistency of a baseball you often see elsewhere. These falafel are heavily and richly flavored with bright parsley, spicy garlic and intense coriander. A lightly fried exterior parts with a deeply satisfying crunch, exposing the pillowy-soft inside of the fritter. The falafel are especially good tucked inside a pita, with plenty of soft hummus and crunchy veggies.
Likewise, the tabbouleh here should be experienced at least once by anyone who's even remotely a fan of Middle Eastern food, or even those who aren't. I can't count the number of disappointing tabboulehs I've eaten over the years: dry, underflavored stuff that tastes like chewing your way through a bag of grass clippings. The tabbouleh at Abdallah's is addictive. The tiny pearls of bulgur are perfectly balanced with finely chopped parsley and mint, all of it nearly swimming in a refreshing, citrusy dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. It's a clean, invigorating taste that I've never come close to seeing replicated at any other Middle Eastern restaurant in Houston.
One afternoon, I lingered over a plate of kibbe pie (called "baked kibbe" at Abdallah's) and stewed green beans, taking in the sights and sounds of the restaurant. Kibbe — a dish made with bulgur wheat and minced beef or lamb in its simplest incarnation — is available in several forms here. The typical kibbe "torpedos" are available each day, as is kibbe nayyeh — which uses raw meat, similar to kitfo in Ethiopian cuisine — but only on Saturdays. That Thursday afternoon, I'd asked for a plate of my usual kibbe balls and two sides but was steered away by the man behind the steam table.
"This is better," he pointed somewhat gruffly towards the kibbe pie. It looked great. Why not? And how can you not appreciate that kind of honesty?
The pie was, indeed, better. I liked the richly flavored crust of bulgur wheat that surrounded the minced beef on both sides. It tasted of cinnamon and allspice and perhaps the vaguest bit of mint. It was scored on the top in a diamond pattern, making it that much easier to cut bites off and pop them into my mouth. With the green beans (and an extra side of tabbouleh, naturally), it was a lovely way to pass a lunch hour, enjoying the visual feast that is the exotic packaging of boxes of dates and sweets stacked on one table, the pleasant curves of fat bags of lentils and beans stacked on another, shelves filled with bottles of olive oil and honey.
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Although I'd mostly resisted all the phyllo-crafted desserts that beckoned from one side of the store over my last few visits, I splurged and bought one of the immense trays that I'd been eyeing alongside those heaps of dry goods. Abdallah's has one of the larger selections of pastries in town. They aren't as sweet as you may be accustomed to, rosewater being more prominent in some desserts than the honey. But this only means they aren't oppressively sugary — a nice change of pace from the honey-drowned baklava you'll find elsewhere.
Traditional holiday cookies, or ma'amoul, are one of the many choices in the case and especially fitting during the month of Ramadan. There are also more mainstream Middle Eastern desserts like baklava and halva. Long, cigar-shaped znood es-sett sit coyly next to finely woven birds' nests of kunafi, the entire dessert display looking like something off of an Arabian prince's feasting table.
As she packaged up my tray of pastries, the woman behind the register chuckled, "You're going to be popular back at the office." The pastries went as quickly as anticipated in the newsroom, although a few people asked me afterwards, "What's Abdallah's?"
Abdallah's is the place with the delightful pita bread, amazing falafel and perfect tabbouleh. And it's the place where rumors about bad shawarma go to die.