Grocery Guide

Lebanese Queso and More at the Fabulous New Phoenicia Downtown

I feel almost obligated to turn in my Texan card for saying this, but the "queso" I enjoyed at the MKT Bar (1001 Austin) inside the new downtown Phoenicia grocery store earlier this week was better than any Tex-Mex queso I've ever had.

This has troubled me as much as it has delighted me. I expected the food at MKT Bar to be good. After all, Arpi's Phoenicia Deli -- the restaurant arm of the original Phoenicia on Westheimer -- is good. But I was never expecting MKT Bar to be this good, nor this creative.

"You might have unintentionally opened the best new restaurant downtown," I joked to Ann-Marie Tcholakian on Tuesday night, as she told me about the queso that was largely her invention. Tcholakian, the daughter of owners Bob and Arpi Tcholakian, just grinned shyly.

"We just wanted to open a place where people could come and hang out and enjoy themselves," she replied. And get killer food, like the inventive queso. The dip is a four-cheese blend of beemster, white cheddar, gruyere and kefalograviera, but the crowning glory of the thing is the crumbled kibbeh on top.

The cinnamon and nutmeg of the beef kibbeh bring out all of the wonderful salt, butter and caramel flavors in the cheese blend, the whole thing begging to be poured on top of the thin pita chips served on the side (made in-house, naturally). It tastes absolutely nothing like queso and everything like queso might dream of being after spending a night in Phoenicia's richly scented aisles.

This new downtown Phoenicia is so much more than the warehouse on Westheimer, in a wildly different way. The second-generation influence of Ann-Marie and her brother Haig -- who buys the store's wine, beer and cigars -- is felt in more modern and elegant touches. The store itself is a marvel of engineering, thanks to Bob Tcholakian's background as an architect: Phoenicia is able to bake all of its bread and other goods on site because of the intricate way in which he designed the elaborate venting system beneath One Park Place's residential units and parking garages.

Inside the store itself, I was reminded of the original Phoenicia's cheerfully bare-bones style. Cash registers aren't big affairs with magazine stands or cold drink fridges; they're just clean and efficient. Displays aren't gaudied up with seasonal trinkets, and SALE! signs don't blare at you from every corner. All that room is filled instead with a vast meat and fish selection, a large produce area and a bakery nearly as large as the one on Westheimer. It may be an urban spacesaver, but Phoenicia Downtown offers a hell of a selection.

Upstairs, there's a bit more headroom than in the lower-ceilinged bottom floor, and it's filled nearly to the rafters with wine, dry goods and specialty food items. You can also see into the top floor of the bakery from here, and watch the conveyor belts at work as they float the puffs of pita bread gently down to the floor below.

Back downstairs, though, MKT Bar is already just as crowded as the store itself. The secret got out fast, and by 5 p.m. on Tuesday night it was already pleasantly busy with businessmen fresh off work and shoppers taking a nip of wine before hitting the store. MKT Bar offers a full menu of both beer and wine, and Haig Tcholakian has been sure to keep some unusual selections available on draft: I enjoyed both a Piraat and an Alamo Golden Ale while I was there.

Aside from the queso, the menu resonates with unique dishes like fries dusted with za'atar and served with tzatziki and Moroccan ketchup, a Farmer's MKT pizza with spinach, pears, roasted shallots and more of that kefalograviera cheese, and gelato sandwiches, one of which is served with house-candied bacon clinging to its chocolate interior.

Although the grocery store itself is vital -- especially in a central business district with no other grocery stores to speak of, and especially with its great selection of pre-made, to-go items -- I feel that it's the MKT Bar that will ultimately function as the catalyst to make Phoenicia into something greater.

Already, the restaurant-and-grocery-store combo is bringing in visitors to the George R. Brown Convention Center and people staying at the mega-Hilton across the street. Residents who live above it in One Park Place won't be singlehandedly keeping Phoenicia open, especially not with the ample parking that will surely draw Heights and Montrose residents in as well. And, like Hubbell & Hudson in The Woodlands, there's a one-two punch that will keep them there even longer: restaurant then grocery shopping? Or grocery shopping and then restaurant? You'll want to stay here for a good few hours either way.

And even though the grocery store keeps pretty regular hours, MKT Bar will be open until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. I can't shake the feeling that Phoenicia is going to be a pulse point for downtown Houston for a long time to come, and that it's exactly what we've been needing all these many, grocer-less years.

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Katharine Shilcutt