"Fast food" is how part-owner George Challita initially classified the market's food service during a telephone conversation. As if realizing that his kitchen's efforts include soft-dough meat pies that drive Natchitoches right off the map, he paused to develop a more flattering tag. "On-the-run food," he amended. That's it. And as far as on-the-run food goes, Byblos Market shoots the moon.
The drill begins in line, where one fact soon reveals itself: everyone here -- diners, employees, casual consumers scanning the neat grocery aisles for yerba matte and ghee -- is almost freakishly friendly. On my first visit a fellow customer eased the menu from my grip and advised my ordering in the gentle, tender-hearted way a good friend might suggest you've already had enough martinis. Before I could protest or relent, he turned to the kitchen and shouted, "You know that salad I always get with the chicken? Give it to her!"
Sure enough, the salad rocked: lime-green romaine leaves came dripping, but not over-dressed, with olive oil and lemon juice; they sported a Greek salad's customary briny black olives, tomato slices and extra-creamy feta cheese, plus a bonus heap of succulent, slightly tangy chicken shawarma. The man who ordered for me works in the neighborhood. He checked in twice during lunch to make sure everything was alright.
Mazen Mitwali, the Jordanian manager who accepted the salad order, could be straight from a cartoon, with his Brutus looks and Popeye lovability. He teasingly chides customers who can't decide what to drink (the fascinating beverage selection ranges from sparkling French lemonade to Slovenian grape juice), and he hollers for the sake of hollering -- a ridiculous smile always engulfing his face. One customer told me that he eats elsewhere on Mitwali's days off; his presence is that essential to the mood of the room -- something rarely encountered even in restaurants where table service is an art form.
Upon receiving an order for chicken shawarma or gyro, Mitwali scythes notches into one of the three cylinders of meat rotating behind the counter, catching the tender slices in a sort of metal dustpan to be rolled into a pita sandwich or used to crown a salad. The thick, springy slices of garlicky gyro meat, made with beef and lamb, may not be to everyone's taste, but even the people at my table who complained about its texture didn't let it go uneaten.
Certain dishes here compete with those at our best Middle Eastern restaurants, including the two more formal Byblos locations. Half a rotisserie chicken, its pliant skin sand-blasted with spices, comes with hummus, rice-vermicelli noodle pilaf and a crazy-good, cold garlic sauce made with just garlic and oil. At $6.95, consider it a gift.
Daily specials are worth noticing, like cinnamon-seasoned yellow rice shot through with golden raisins and pine nuts, served with pulled chicken and cucumber-yogurt salad. And don't overlook the deli case, which is where I found plump fava beans and flat green beans stewed with allspice and tomato sauce; and a pleasantly oily eggplant-tomato mousaka.
Other selections, including many Middle Eastern staples, just don't sing. Halloumi, a squeaky, white cheese from Cyprus, exhibits a subtle nuttiness and a domineering salinity. Served with an assortment of cheeses for $3.50, it can be a pleasant appetizer or interlude; served cold on French bread (not "melted," as the menu promises) though, it makes a downer of a sandwich. Refrigerator-cold stuffed grape leaves seemed to contain nothing but rice and a meaty, reddish paste. And I like my baba ghanoush (roasted eggplant dip) smoky, but this one is a full-blown forest fire.
On every occasion hummus, the chick pea dip served with all platters, lacked the zip of garlic and lemon juice. It did, however, benefit from a shower of tart, fruity sumac powder. Like the stargazer lily and its orange-staining pollen, the kitchen sprinkles the brick-colored ground sumac seeds over most everything.
Dessert is serious business here, be it the "fingers" of rolled pastry that weigh less than a finger-tap but taste solid as a stick of butter; or the imported squares of honeyed pistachio nuts made by the same Middle Eastern bakery. Requiring the greatest commitment, ashta is a softball of warm, milky-white custard flavored with rose flower water and wrapped in multiple layers of stiff pastry leaves. You'll want to linger over this one, preferably with an espresso.
Emptied demitasses litter the tabletops come mid-afternoon, as the market is a great place to dally away the final moments of a lunch hour. If this sounds contrary to your average on-the-run eatery, that's because there's virtually nothing average about it.