Just before Thanksgiving, I was making a lightning trip to Houston, with no time to really check out the local scene (sob!) but I had to get some groceries to make Thanksgiving happen, and with some poking around found their Super H (part of an Asian supermarket out of California, with a branch I know in suburban Atlanta). But the real surprise was Phoenicia, the best Mediterranean (and perhaps the best ethnic) market I’ve ever encountered.
The store itself is a pretty big warehouse-y box. When you are in the produce section, overhead on conveyor builts about 12 feet up are loaves of bread moving from a second floor bakery down toward the floor.
Back by the fish and meat markets is an long salad bar filled with every imaginable olive and similar ingredients. I came away from that with Moroccan dried spiced black olives, preserved lemons, Niçoise olives, and others.
There were plenty of folks in the aisles and parking lot speaking Lebanese, Italian, etc. The food was priced at we-eat-this-everyday (as opposed to gourmet) pricing, and the range of selection in sections like pasta, canned goods, and vinegars, oils, and bottled sauces was pretty comprehensive.
While we were checking out, we asked the cashier where to eat in the neighborhood and he recommended we go next door to Phoenicia’s own deli. Good suggestion.
Their deli is set up as a cafeteria, with the first item offered shawarma, which is shaved lamb for eating in pita sandwiches. The also offered chicken, beef, and soujuk (a dried beef sausage from Turkey and Armenia) versions.
After that came a whole lot of middle eastern dishes– grape leaves, hummus, tahini, imam bayendi (a roasted eggplant dish), tabouleh, cerviche of shrimp and fish, chicken cous cous. The way it worked is you got dishes of varying sizes (you can see some of the sizes here). A meat dish was $6 for a small dish and $9 for a large. The other dishes were $1 (petit) $2 (small), $4 (medium) and $8 (large). We got a small meat dish and a mixture of petit, small, and medium other dishes, all depicted below, along with two glasses of wine. It all comes with access to a bin of pita and another bin of fried pita, and this all ended up being $30.
The quality was wonderful. The schawarma did not have the usual failing of being too dry. This was not. The eggplant dish was the best version of it I’ve had– really rich, deep flavor, with the roasting of the eggplant, tomato, and other ingredients producing a good combination. It’s depicted below in the roasting pan. The shrimp in the cerviche was a little tough, but the fish good, and the teboulah a little bland, but everything else was great. Quite a bargain, and quite healthy food. I’d eat there regularly if it was in my town.
In 2009, Saveur magazine listed this place in its annual list of 100 things worth noticing in food. Here’s what they said:
PHOENICIA SPECIALTY FOODS Houston, Texas The Lebanese émigré Zohrab Tcholakian opened Phoenicia Deli in 1983 and a small grocery store offering products imported from the Middle East in 1992. Three years ago Tcholakian expanded the store to make it a football field–size supermarket (the deli, justly famous for its shawarma sandwiches, remains open across the street). Persian cucumbers? Check. Twenty-foot olive bar? Check. Fresh dates and green almonds? Greek, French, Bulgarian, Romanian, and domestic feta? Fresh-baked pita, lavash, and barbari? It’s all here.
Sounds like we were in the same place.