In his Oxford American article, “Savoring Mutt City,” Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge called Houston the “the South’s twenty-first century Creole capitol…the most vital place to eat in the South right now.” In this series we offer a taste of what he was talking about.
Did you know that the best fried chicken in Houston is served at a mom and pop Middle Eastern restaurant on Richmond called Al Aseel Grill & Cafe, “The Taste of Bethlehem?” (I bet you didn’t know that Bethlehem means “house of meat” in Arabic either.) Okay, granted you have to like garlic and zaatar on your chicken, but seriously, who doesn’t? It kind of reminds me of the garlicky “New Orleans confetti” the late Austin Leslie used to sprinkle on the Creole Fried Chicken he served at Jacques-Imo’s.
Al Aseel is one of three Middle Eastern restaurants at the corner of Richmond and Dunvale. Zayad and Cedars Bakery are the other two. You’ll find the flavors of Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank in these three humble eateries. There’s also a taqueria and a Caribbean food truck on this corner, but I’ll get around to those another time.
On my first excursion to the neighborhood, I joined Paul Galvani for lunch at Zeyad. We ordered a spread from the walk-up deli window in the claustrophobic cafe, but we choose a table in the more spacious bakery. The foul, a lemony fava bean soup that is a popular breakfast in the Middle East was terrific. Tabouli made with fresh lime juice was stellar and the falafel were excellent, though very well done. The biggest surprise was a plate of hummus served with spicy cooked ground lamb on top. I always thought of hummus as a vegetarian favorite–who knew the bean dip was so versatile.
If you have ever bought a bag of the pointy pita loaves called “Iraqi bread” at Phoenicia, you have sampled Zeyad’s bakery products already. We bought several bags of Iraqui bread, ate some with our lunch and took the rest home. Zeyad wasn’t the most stylish place for lunch–sort of like eating in a commercial bakery. But the freshness of the food made up for the lack of atmosphere.
At Zayad, I also got my first taste of the flatbread pizza called manakish. We tried one with white crumbly cheese and one with the spice blend called zaatar. Eating at the bakery must be a popular Middle Eastern tradition because in the shopping center across the street from Zayad, Cedars Bakery offers a similiar experience. No doubt manakish tastes best when its hot out of the oven, and its also a specialty at Cedars Bakery. The dining area here is a step up from Zeyad, it’s a nicely finished cafe with marble tables and wooden counters. Zeyad has a much bigger variety of items to choose from, but Cedars is a better place to hang out and eat manakish.
Fried chicken isn’t the only yardbird on the menu at Al Aseel Grill & Cafe. Under the Al Aseel Special section of the menu, there’s Musakhan Chicken, a grilled half or whole chicken served on a pile of pita and topped with olive oil, sauteed onions and the tart red spice called sumaq. It’s in the top echelon of grilled chicken dishes in Houston. There’s also a plain grilled half or whole chicken on the menu, but for the dollar or two you save, you might as well splurge on the sumaq. The vegetable spreads are pretty good, though we got some old cucumbers the other day. The hookah smoke gets a little thick at times too. The smokers are supposed to stay outdoors, but they sneak inside when no one is eating.
Galvani told me that while he was sitting at a table in the restaurant eating the signature Musakhan chicken one day, he heard three guys in line arguing about what kind of chicken to order, when one of them loudly blurted: “Get the fried chicken, it’s the best!” Galvani resolved to come back and try the fried chicken. He brought me along and we ordered all three versions of Al Aseel’s chicken. While the grilled and Musakhan chicken has a lot going for it health and flavor wise, the crispy, spicy, fried-to-order chicken is off the charts.
Don’t take my word for it. Try some!