"I was told there was a big Arab community in Houston when I first moved here," remembers Hala Daher. "But it wasn't at all like Dearborn."
Daher, an engineer, moved to Houston from Dearborn, Michigan, where more than 30 percent of the population is Arab. It was a comfortable existence, surrounded by a close-knit community not unlike that of Beirut. Like a majority of the Arabs in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, Daher is originally from Lebanon. When she moved to Houston after college, she lamented the city's spread-out, sprawling nature, which threw up barriers to finding the food from home that she was craving.
"It makes looking for decent restaurants much more difficult. My first few tries, nothing worked out," she says. "My mom is a great cook, and living in Dearborn meant that we had our pick of good Lebanese restaurants."
But finally, inspiration struck along the broad, hot asphalt of Westheimer. "One day, I happened to find Phoenicia, which was perfect." She smiles at the memory. "I figure if I can't eat good Lebanese food at a restaurant, I can cook it myself at home using ingredients I'm used to and using my mom's recipes." She began shopping at the sprawling market on a regular basis, feeling more at home with each visit.
"Phoenicia feels and smells like a grocery store in the Middle East," she claims. "It's basically as authentic as it gets."
Phoenicia (12141 Westheimer, 281-558-8225) is run by the Tcholakian family, Lebanese-born Armenians who have made Houston their home. But this international grocery store offers items from around the world, not just the Middle East. Jars of sauerkraut from Germany keep company with skinny links of Polish kabanosy sausages, Greek olives mingle with Turkish pastries, Indian curries with British tea. An international group of shoppers is found here every day of the week, searching for the flavors of home — which isn't surprising, considering that one quarter of the Houston population has moved here from another area of the world.
But despite Daher's initial experience here, immigrants craving authentic cuisine don't always have to cook it for themselves. Daher was thrilled to discover Abdallah's (3939 Hillcroft, 713-952-4747), the family-run bakery and restaurant that has been crafting solid Middle Eastern food in Houston since 1977. "Everything I've had there tastes like home," she crows, adding with a grin, "and it's not dumbed down for American tastes."
The shawarma at the restaurant is what keeps bringing her back, as well as other delicacies like grape leaves and tabbouleh. "Some of these things I can make myself," she says. "But they're time- and labor-intensive. It's nice to go somewhere and have it prepared the right way when I'm feeling homesick."
In fact, no matter which country you're from, when you're feeling homesick, you almost always can find the taste of home in Houston. Over the past 20 years, the city has increasingly become a destination for people who bring with them Peruvian ceviches, Nigerian fufu, Polish pierogi and Indian barfee. You can get food from every continent here — minus Australia, unfortunately, and, of course, Antarctica. You just have to know where to look.
And that makes it a good town for eating, no matter where you're from.
Miyagi moved to Houston from Japan after spending half a lifetime as a sushi chef.
"Thirty years," he smiles. "More than 30 years." In his native Okinawa, working with fish is an art form. Handling seafood — and handling it correctly, deftly — is a highly respected trade in the small chain of islands that extends south from Japan into the East China Sea, nearly to Taiwan. In those islands, Miyagi is a common surname.
Two and a half years ago, Miyagi and his wife opened Sushi Miyagi (10600 Bellaire Blvd., 281-933-9112) in the strongly Vietnamese-dominated Chinatown in far west Houston. He named the restaurant after his surname — which is the only name he goes by — in order "to let other Japanese know that someone from Okinawa runs this place." It's a point of immense pride for the chef, who is careful to capture an American (and Vietnamese) audience but retains deeply traditional Japanese items on his menu, from warm cups of chawan mushi (an egg custard with seafood) to elaborate plates of sashimi featuring minty, deep-green shiso leaves that separate the fish.
Chinatown is a nexus for restaurants just like Miyagi's, restaurants started from the ground up by recent immigrants to the city, eager to serve food to their fellow expats as well as to Americans willing to sample occasionally exotic fare like the wonderfully chewy pigs' ears in chile oil or the dusky, slightly sweet duck tongues at Sichuan King (9114 Bellaire Blvd., 713-771-6868), served bone-in — yes, duck tongues have a bone in them — while Christmas music plays overhead, regardless of season.