By Marjorie Rice
Isam Saed didn’t set out to be a restaurateur. But a fortuitous meal changed his path.
A physics teacher and entrepreneur, the Nazareth native had come to the United States in 1966 as a university student in Kansas and then he taught physics and chemistry in Haifa, Israel. Saed later moved back to the United States, where he operated convenience stores in Illinois with his brothers. He later moved to the Valley, where his son was in college.
In 2008, Saed was looking for a business opportunity and he met for lunch with his Realtor at a venerable bakery and deli on 16th Street. One of the owners was interested in selling the restaurant and after checking the receipts and sampling the food (“It had fantastic flavor,” Saed said), he bought the place.
The Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli has been in the same 16th Street location for 53 years. It began as J and J Arabic Bread Company, specializing in pita, the ubiquitous pocket bread of the Middle East. That expanded into sandwiches – a natural since pita begs to be filled with something savory – then dinners. Customers liked the food so much that they asked for ingredients to cook the dishes at home and a wide selection of spices and other ingredients for Middle Eastern cookery was added.
As the offerings grew, so did the store, expanding into two store spaces. It’s a bustling spot, with customers dining at spaced tables and others in line for ingredients, sandwiches and grocery items.
You can linger at the shelves of the jam-packed little market, picking whole cardamom pods, pomegranate and date syrup, spice mixtures, tahini and all sorts of couscous and grains for Middle Eastern dishes. There also is a large in-house and takeout menu, and prepared dishes – lamb kebabs, spinach pie, baba ganouj, hummus and many others – in the refrigerator and freezer cases. Also piles of fresh pita and a bakery case packed with baklava and other Middle Eastern desserts are available to purchase.
Middle Easterners pride themselves on hospitality and Saed embodies that tradition, greeting customers and answering questions as he talks with a visitor about his path to his present-day deli and bakery.
In the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality, Saed serves up a “snack.” It’s a plate brimming with dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), kibbeh (bulgur, minced onions and finely ground meat – usually beef or lamb – and spices including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove), tabbouleh (minced parsley with tomatoes, mint, bulgur, onion, olive oil and lemon juice), hummus (mashed garbanzo beans, tahini, olive oil, lemon and garlic). Added to that are ample side dishes of silky, smoky baba ganouj (mashed grilled eggplant with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and seasonings); olives, some marinated for months in-house; and pita.
It’s all part of a traditional Meza – a meal of various dishes meant for sharing, along with conversation, followed by cardamom-laced black coffee, strong but not bitter and served in small cups.
And dessert is the famous baklava, the honey and walnut mixture baked in filo pastry. The restaurant employees make a few varieties in Saed’s deli.
Saed takes special pride in his kibbeh.
“Kibbeh are considered the pride of Lebanon,” he said. “We make them three different ways – fried small like meatballs, big, or we make them what is considered the best, where the meat is raw lamb. It melts in your mouth like chocolate. I have two customers who come every month from El Paso, Texas, just to eat them.”
The pita is puffy in texture, tender but with enough strength to hold fillings without cracking open. And it’s available gluten-free.
“It took a year and a half to come up with the right recipe,” Saed said. “We use rice, potato and corn flour. I did it as a favor to a customer. Now I get orders from Minnesota, from Seattle, from New York.”
The Middle Eastern Deli is located at 3052 N 16th St, Call the deli at 602-277-4927 for hours and more information.
Note: there are various spellings for the menu items and we’ve chosen common variations.