The slow-cooked lamb shank was so tender you could cut it with a plastic knife and fork. And since those are the only utensils available in the dining area of Phoenicia Specialty Foods on Westheimer, that's exactly what I did. The lamb was served over an excellent rice pilaf containing peas and pasta pieces. For my two sides, I got hummus and tabouli. Using the hot flatbread provided with the plate, I ended up eating most of the lamb wrapped in pita bread with yogurt and herb tzatziki sauce.
I often grab an espresso and a pastry in this dining area while I'm shopping, but I never really thought of it as a restaurant before. What changed my mind were the crowds of people I saw eating there. The dining area at Phoenicia is crowded all the time during the holidays.
And what a mix of ethnicities — Arabs, Hispanics, African-Americans, you name it — the place is a veritable United Nations. I have never seen so many varieties of head scarves, chadors, veils and burkas in one place, or heard so many languages. When I admired the modern art crucifix hanging around the neck of a black-robed, bearded Egyptian Coptic cleric, he shook my hand warmly and gave me a blessing. (So I've got that going for me.)
Phoenicia Specialty Foods
12141 Westheimer, 281-558-8225.
Hours:8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays;8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Closed Christmas Day.
Chicken shawarma wrap: $4.95
Kebab pita wrap: $4.95
Almond-semolina cake: $1
An Asian family had pulled three tables together, and they were eating a large sit-down meal, including the lamb shank entrée. It looked so good, I decided to try it myself. So I parked my shopping cart, which was already half full of holiday treats, next to a little round table in the dining area to save my place. Then I walked up to the display case next to the butcher counter and placed my order. If you're eating it there, you get a ticket that you pay at the bakery register, where you can also order drinks and dessert.
I often get food to go and pay at the front registers. My usual routine is to pick up a whole roasted chicken that comes with addictive garlic mayo for $6, grab a $1 package of hot pita bread and then hit the olive bar. Along with 99 kinds of olives, there is a selection of olive salads, pickled turnips, artichoke hearts, hummus, tabouli, baba ghanoush, tapenade, walnut and pomegranate spread, and countless other treats. And everything is several dollars a pound cheaper than at Whole Foods. You can feed a family for 12 bucks and have enough leftovers to make lunch.
I wouldn't want to eat a whole chicken in the food court, however. Pita sandwiches are your best bet for eating in the store. The most popular item is the chicken shawarma sandwich, a huge pita roll-up loaded with tender chicken, yogurt sauce and chopped pickles. It's easy to eat without utensils. So are the spectacular kebabs.
There are five varieties of fresh-cooked kebabs available. As an American, my first instinct is always to order the best-looking meat — the big beef cubes, lamb chunks or chicken pieces. But experience has proven that once these meats are cooked to well-done, they become dry and unexciting. It's the nasty-looking, gray, ground-meat kebabs that are always the best choice. The highly seasoned minced meat on the lamb kofte and beef kofte kebabs comes out tasting like spicy sausage. Get one on a pita sandwich for $4.95, and don't forget to ask for extra garlic mayo.
Like every Middle Eastern restaurant in town, Phoenicia also sells premade poor boy sandwiches — they're $3.95. The premade salads, made with feta, olives and pickled peppers, go for $7, and they're huge. While I don't think I'd try to tackle the lamb shank with a plastic knife and fork again, there are a couple of softer entrées, like moussaka and a whole squash stuffed with ground lamb and simmered in tomato sauce, that aren't too much of a challenge. The moussaka is decent, but the stuffed squash is a little bland.
Dessert is the best part of eating in the Phoenicia dining area. While you might find decent baklava elsewhere in town, you won't find a larger selection than they have here. I counted seven varieties, including pistachio, walnut and cardamom, last time. And if Middle Eastern sweets don't interest you, there's another display case full of fresh-baked croissants, fruit-filled Danishes and French pastries.
My daughter and I were sharing a square of dense, moist almond-semolina cake when a couple sat down at the table next and began opening to-go containers and packaged foods they'd paid for at the checkout area up front. I started talking to the guy, who introduced himself as Woody.
"This may be the best vegan restaurant in the city," he said, eating fava bean soup from a Styrofoam bowl. His wife was eating a large Mediterranean Cobb salad out of a big square plastic container. The couple, who had moved here from Washington D.C., were disappointed with the bland fare at the Houston health food restaurants. They had driven all the way across town on this Sunday afternoon to eat a picnic lunch out of plastic containers in this little dining area because once they discovered Phoenicia, they found it hard to eat vegan anywhere else.
The real reason I had actually come to Phoenicia, I explained to Woody and his wife, was to do my annual holiday handout shopping. This tradition started a few years ago when we pulled into Phoenicia on our way out of town. We were visiting friends and relatives in Austin for the holidays and we needed little gifts to hand over when we showed up at their houses. A bottle of wine is the usual door-knocker gift, but if you're stopping in on lots of friends, wine can get expensive.
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The array of items and price points for this sort of stuff at Phoenicia is staggering. I tend to think of Phoenicia as a Middle Eastern food store, but according to their Web site, the place "specializes in imported foods from around the world including France, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, United Kingdom, Germany, Lebanon, Chile, Argentina, Portugal, Syria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Armenia, Brazil and Sweden." If you like craft projects, you can make your own gift boxes with the unusual jams, jellies, weird tea bags, hard-to-find nut oils, spice blends, dried fruits, nuts and the rest of the exotic imported stuff they sell at Phoenicia.
Personally, I just grab whatever is handy. This year I picked up some lovely dark-blue bags of chocolate-covered fruits for $4.29 each, gift boxes of chocolate-dipped biscotti decorated with red ribbon for $6.99 each and a fabulous two-pound fruit and nut assortment.
The $15 fruit and nut assortment comes in a big, round plastic tray and includes shelled pistachios, lots of almonds and cashews, dried apricots and dried cranberries. This is the perfect gift to give to the people who are putting you up. A few years ago, I gave this assortment to some health-minded hosts who are known to prefer raw carrot sticks and celery stalks as snacks. It saved me from what might have been some very boring cocktail hours.
Whether you are looking for a cheap gift, a quick lunch or a spectacular ethnic spread to entertain a large crowd on a tight budget, Phoenicia is a great place to stretch your holiday cheer.