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Middle Eastern Manna 

What began in 1987 as a modest, Middle Eastern bakery of then-exotic pita bread has expanded into a family-run business with four popular restaurants, three with international grocery stores attached to them.

Mona's Cafe (3901 Banks St., 482-7743; 504 Frenchmen St., 949-4115; 4126 Magazine St., 894-9800; 3151 Calhoun St., 861-2124) evolved from a bakery into a sandwich shop and finally a group of restaurants by popular demand as locals developed a taste for the cuisine of an unfamiliar land and urged the owners to open new locations to make their regular forays more convenient. The Calhoun Street cafe is the only Mona's location without a market attached.

"The idea (for the restaurant) started from the bakery," says the Jordan-born Karim Taha, who operates the establishments with partner Nihad Momem. Three years after opening the bakery on Banks Street, the business expanded into an international market and customers suggested they compile sandwiches for lunch, which they began offering in 1993.

"First we started doing simple sandwiches with the pita bread -- traditional Middle Eastern sandwiches. We started with five tables and 11 chairs on the outside of the bakery. It wasn't enough."

Four months later, a restaurant critic's review of the establishment tripled their Friday business and the owners realized they needed to provide more tables, chairs and inside dining for customers. "Since that day, we've been successful," Taha says. "We had a lot of requests from people to open places Uptown and in the Marigny."

Over time the menu has grown to include a full complement of Middle Eastern cuisine, and the locations now offer party trays and catering services as well. Most of the dinners are prepared to accommodate Sugar Busters! and everything served is prepared fresh, in-house daily. Plus, Taha says, customers find the fare ample and affordable.

"We serve a good portion; it's filling," he says. "We want customers to come back. We want it to be affordable so they can come back two to three times a week." And customers do return for falafel, gyro and kabob sandwiches; grape leaves rolled with a stuffing of spiced carrots, cracked wheat, parsley, dill weed and onion; chicken, shrimp, beef and royal lamb kabobs; kibby; catfish and more. All dinners are served with salad, humus or rice and white or whole wheat pita bread. Other favorites include tabouli, spinach pie, fuol (mashed fava beans mixed with garlic, hot pepper, lemon an olive oil), baba ganouj (a dip of mashed baked eggplant, tahini paste, lemon and onion), and zaater bread (ground thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac mixed with olive oil, spread over pita bread and baked).

"Most of the menu is typical Middle Eastern items," Taha says. "It's very popular. Everything is made with natural ingredients. It's all fresh. You can't go wrong with it."

For those seeking lighter fare, Mona's offers lentil soup and salads including Greek, Arabic, green fatoush, tabouleh, grilled chicken or shrimp and a yogurt and cucumber concoction.

The group of eateries also has overcome a malicious fire that heavily damaged the Banks Street location shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The cause of the fire was determined to be arson, Taha says, but no one has been arrested for the blaze and the specific reason for the arson has not been stated. Undaunted, the restaurant owners rebuilt the eatery, reconfiguring and expanding the dining room, re-establishing the kitchen and bakery and reopening the attached international market. The new dining room, which reopened July 5, accommodates diners more comfortably and the owners decorated the walls on three sides with an expansive mural of a Middle Eastern cityscape.

"Customers have been very supportive since the fire, bringing in their friends," Taha says. "The renovation took us seven months, and we switched things around and expanded the dining room and kitchen."

Although customers have urged him to open even more Mona's, especially on the Northshore, Taha says there are no such plans currently underway. "Maybe in the future," he says. "Right now we're stopping for a little while."

Transplanting Floral Arts
Monet's is taking its artistic floral creations and uncommon gifts to the renovated Northlake Shopping Center in Mandeville. The new shop (1862 N. Causeway Blvd., Mandeville, 985-674-2442) opens today (Oct. 1).

"We're really excited about it, because the whole shopping center is being revamped," says Bernie Marino, who owns Monet's with Mia Kirn. "It will be a more convenient, with easier access for our customers. We think it's going to be a great move."

Monet's is a full-service florist, specializing in unusual floral designs, weddings and parties. The shop also sells fresh-cut flowers, art, home decorating items and gifts in all price ranges.

click to enlarge Waitresses Madrim Kusumadewi (left), Elspeth Doskey and restaurateur Karim Taha stand in front of a cityscape that graces three huge walls in the newly renovated and expanded Mona's restaurant dining room on Banks Street.
  • Waitresses Madrim Kusumadewi (left), Elspeth Doskey and restaurateur Karim Taha stand in front of a cityscape that graces three huge walls in the newly renovated and expanded Mona's restaurant dining room on Banks Street.
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