See Cedars's big brick ovens and fabulous flatbreads in our slideshow.
It's high noon on a sunny Saturday and Cedars Bakery can't keep its packages of freshly baked pita bread on the shelf. Hijabi women are perched near the wooden shelves lining one wall, waiting keenly for more packets of the bread to be brought out from the open kitchen. In the middle of the bakery, two enormous brick ovens bellow and glow as two lean young men pump bread in and out of them like a pair of pistons. They heat up the inside of the bakery to temperatures close to those outside in the scorching July summer, but no one inside seems to care. They're here for the bread, and they'll wait as long as it takes.
At a table with my dining companion, we're waiting for our food to come out as we watch the men in the kitchen work tirelessly. I can see our zaatar and cheese bread already prepped on a large table in front of the ovens, and I watch its journey as my dining companion turns his attention to Al Jazeera on the flat-screen TV across the way. I hear him chuckling and turn to see why.
"Look!" He's pointing toward the flags mounted on either side of the TV. "They have a Texas flag on one side and a Lebanese flag on the other," he says, gesturing to the white and red flag with a signature green cedar tree in the middle. That cedar tree emblem is repeated throughout the bakery, even down to its name, a sign to other Lebanese that this is a true taste of home.
And with its short menu of mana'eesh (or manakish) — Lebanese flatbreads — and shawarmas, this isn't a menu truly meant for the masses. Cedars doesn't cater to wishy-washy Americans who make vague statements like "Oh, yeah, I love Mediterranean food. Hummus is so good for you." Cedars is still a bakery first and foremost, and it caters primarily to the large Lebanese diaspora in Houston. As such, there are a lot of things on the menu that aren't immediately familiar to folks raised on Fadi's buffets or Sabra hummus.
Which is, of course, why I love it. Middle Eastern food was the first ethnic food I was ever exposed to as a kid, dining off one of the few buffets in town with my father, the man who was the impetus of all my culinary wanderings throughout my adolescence. He taught me everything I could have wanted to know about tabbouleh and baba ghanoush, kibbeh and fattoush. So I'm always excited to find Middle Eastern food in Houston that I haven't tried yet, like the tantalizing flatbread that was finally making its way to our table.
When our mana'eesh came out, I set about explaining each one to my dining companion, whom I'd lured to Cedars under the pretense of having "breakfast pizza." I've found that identifying cognates like this is often the easiest way to persuade skeptics to try ethnic foods they otherwise might not. I pointed to the sojok (pronounced "suh-zhook") flatbread, ruddy nuggets of sausage crumbled atop a bed of salty halloum cheese on top of a pillowy piece of pita bread.
"It's like Lebanese chorizo," I explained to my friend. A familiar concept to any Houstonian, the Middle Eastern version of this sausage is crumbly and dry, with the same spice profile of cumin, garlic and red pepper, but is made with beef. It's used in the same contexts, too, scrambled into eggs for breakfast in some Middle Eastern countries. And in Lebanon, it's sliced and put into sandwiches. Cedars has those, too, but we were too busy concentrating on breakfast that day to try any.
We quickly put away the sojok flatbread — at four pieces in a "personal pizza"-type size, this is easy to do — and turned to the other flatbreads on the table: cheese and zaatar and one simply called "meat" on the menu. The meat turned out to be finely ground beef seasoned with nutmeg and tomato; neither of us cared for it, but the zaatar and cheese mana'eesh was a different thing entirely.
Cut into long strips instead of pie pieces, the idea behind the "half-and-half,"as it's referred to here, is that you fold the strip together, smashing the zaatar spice blend and the cheese into one piece that's bookended by light, fluffy pita bread on either side. The zaatar's predominant flavor is that uniquely tangy, sour taste of ground sumac in the spice blend along with salt, toasted sesame seeds and the sweet herbal currents of thyme and marjoram. It's traditionally eaten on pita bread with soft lebne, so the mana'eesh is really just taking all of those steps and condensing them into one beautifully flavorful dish.
I had ordered a bowl of lebne on the side and we greedily scooped the cheese up with our folded-over slices of half-and-half flatbread, salty and sour and tangy and chewy all mingling together happily. The lebne didn't taste homemade, however; a shame, really, since it's so easy to make. But that didn't stop us from enjoying the meal and the sight of women scrambling over fat, hot packages of pita bread that they stuffed into giant Macy's bags as each new delivery came out from the kitchen.
It's the pita bread that made me investigate Cedars in the first place, after two of my favorite wine personalities — Amine Matta of Bandol Wines and Marc Borel of Bacchus — mentioned it as the best place in town for pita bread one evening over a Wednesday night wine and cupcakes pairing at 13 Celsius. Borel said that he'd been buying it for Bacchus, the new wine bar on Dunlavy, and Matta swore by it as well.
I then turned to my best friend, who is Lebanese, for her guidance on the place. Had she been there? As fate would have it, she'd just had an amazing breakfast there the week before and was itching to take me back there.
That weekend, I stood in gaping awe of the enormous brick ovens as she ordered for us in Arabic, in the swirly, looping, soft-edged Lebanese dialect of the language that sounds more like French than it does Arabic. The man behind the counter remembered her from the week before, when she'd ordered enough food for six people in one sitting. He laughed and teased her for doing the same again, then sent us to sit down while our food was made.
It's all counter service here, and you pay once you've finished eating. That could be in 15 minutes or in several hours, although the latter is more common. You'll see large families at the other tables, eating multi-course meals that they order in stages, just as often as you'll see groups of friends like us, deciding that while the harhoura veggie mana'eesh was very good, we should also try the spinach pies for good measure, and then making a repeat visit to the counter for more food.
The harhoura, with its topping of diced tomatoes, onions and green peppers, doesn't make for ideal breakfast food, but it does make an excellent lunch "pizza." And the spinach pies, we found out, have a filling that's eerily similar in taste and texture to warak enab, Lebanese grape leaves, with a citrusy tang and slightly sour flavor despite being made with spinach. The filling pressed against all sides inside the little tri-corner pocket, spilling out with each bite.
And on these weekend mornings, which are my favorite time to visit the bustling bakery, there's another treat in store: shawarma, which is available only on Saturdays and Sundays. It's wholly authentic here, too, with only shavings of chicken or beef alongside a smear of tahini and pickled turnips bundled together inside a piece of pita bread.
Once again, my friend ended up ordering so much food that we required the use of to-go boxes — you can help yourself to these, just as with the beverages — that we trundled back up to the counter along with bags of fluffy, soft pita bread and trays of cookies studded with sesame seeds and filled with figs and pistachios. Together with our immense breakfast haul of four flatbreads, two bottled waters and two cups of tea, the entire affair came to roughly $30. Cedars seems to pride itself on this: home-cooked food and freshly baked breads and pastries that are affordable on any level.
And best of all, I found out that evening that just like pizza, mana'eesh even tastes good cold and left over, especially if you have a tub of lebne waiting alongside it in the fridge.