By Mandy Simon
My half-Lebanese father grew up here in DC eating a lot of Middle Eastern foods that his grandmother made. He gave those recipes a few tries when I was young and I have a very specific memory of watching him make tabbouleh when I was five or six. When I asked what it was, he looked down at me and said, “Grown-up food.”
My father’s flippancy became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy: I wouldn’t go near a lot of Middle Eastern food until I was older. When I was small, trips to those restaurants usually consisted of me eating pita bread with plain yogurt then ordering a cheeseburger. But, if there’s one piece of knowledge that was repeated to me most consistently (hammered into my head?) as I was growing up, it was that taste buds change. Grudgingly, I’ll admit that it’s been pretty steadily true.
For years, my family has eaten at a restaurant named Beirut Palace in Sterling Heights, Michigan. For me Beirut Palace is home cooking in the sense that while I’ve certainly encountered some great Middle Eastern food in my life, nothing compares to what I grew up with. That, and, despite my father’s early attempts, we never really ate true homemade Middle Eastern.
Walking into Beirut Palace, you see shawarma slowly spinning behind the counter, hear Arabic music playing maybe a little too loudly, juicers whirring and, if you’re a member of my family, one of the owners yelling, “Simon! How you doing?! Yeah? You ok? Yeah? Everything good?”
Then there’s the actual food.
Their fattoush consists of romaine lettuce, pickled radish, various chopped vegetables and toasted pita, all dressed — doused, really — in a dressing that seems to be made solely of lemon juice and sumac. Their hummus, dusted with paprika and parsley is the smoothest, mildest, loveliest, most delicious hummus ever made. And their taboule is heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgur and always tastes freshly chopped.
And the soup! Their crushed lentil soup is somewhere between split pea soup and dal. The recipe remains a mystery despite years of begging the owners — especially Mike — to share. (I’ve found a few shorbat adas recipes but they’re nowhere near as good.)
Occasionally my family has cheated on Beirut Palace because of convenience or a need for, I don’t know, something different. But we’ve always, always returned. Southeast Michigan has a massive selection of Middle Eastern restaurants but I maintain this to be the best. Anyone from around Detroit have any other nominations?
BTW: There’s also a wicked awesome store called Arabic Town that’s a few doors down. The owners are kind of intensely friendly and very knowledgeable. Pick up some cardamom tea or Turkish coffee with cardamom. Basically anything with cardamom. And some labne and a few bags of pita. And the best cheese in the world that I haven’t looked nearly hard enough for in DC: Kashkaval (apparently known as Achaouaine in Syria and Lebanon).