When Phoenicia Specialty Foods announced its plans to open a grocery and restaurant on the first floor of a downtown highrise, there were doubters. What about parking? skeptics asked. And could downtown support the level of business generated by Phoenicia’s landmark ethnic grocery on the westside, with its mind-boggling array of Middle Eastern foodstuffs, its bakery and deli and expansive cafeteria-style restaurant just around the corner?
Downtown is notoriously tough on food-oriented businesses. It seemed possible that the Tcholakian family, the Lebanese clan of Armenian descent that had made such a success way out Westheimer, were biting off more than they could chew.
Seven months after their downtown Phoenicia opened, however, the market and its adjoining restaurant, the Market Bar, are thriving institutions that have changed the face of the city center’s urban life.
The 28,000-square-foot, split-level operation looks like a stroke of genius, from the ease of its free parking in the One Park Place parking garage upstairs, to the zest with which its customers use the store’s many facets, which are fitted together like some devilishly ingenious jigsaw puzzle.
A whole tapestry of urban life unfolds in these brightly lit quarters with its orderly maze of shelves, its self-serve food counters, its gleaming deli and pastry cases overflowing with globetrotting products, its signature domes of just-baked pita bread descending from the second story on their conveyor belt as if from heaven above.
A schoolteacher asks a counter guy to pack her order of marinated Armenian string cheese a little tighter in her single-girl-size container, and picks up a shrink-wrapped pack of four neat slices of provolone to go. A bellman between shifts at the Four Seasons Hotel, which is just across the street, prowls the expansive salad bar, adding a little of this and a lot of that to his styrofoam tray, and ladling out some of the store’s Middle-Eastern inflected chile con carne, rife with garbanzo beans, for good measure.
Lanyard-wearing conventioneers from the nearby George Brown megaplex ooh and aah over the sesame-seed crisps that are clever Middle Easternish variants on the traditional Florentine cookie, lacy and brittle and coated with a thin sheen of dark chocolate.
Business people in office wear line up to customize their shawarma sandwiches of lamb or chicken, sliced off a phalanx of vertical skewers and dressed to order by a solicitous crew who will add tart yogurt sauce, pickled turnip or dill spears, take-no-prisoners garlic spread, or various vegetable garnishes.
Tourists line up to shoot photos of the designated pita squasher, the employee who catches the pita poufs as they reach the end of their conveyor-belt journey, stacking them by nines and compressing them to squeeze out the air, so they’ll fit in a plastic bag.
In a barebones front hallway set up with tables and chairs, a well-coiffed woman in pearls — a tenant from the high-rise upstairs? — nibbles at a coiled spanakopita pastry, looking as if she could be lunching at the River Oaks Country Club. (Well, except for the paper bag and styrofoam and plastic utensils set before her.)
At the end of that cafeteria-like hallway, a whole new scene unfolds: the Market Bar, a watering hole, live entertainment venue and restaurant specializing in platters of Phoenicia’s many imported products, from cheese to meats to vivid Middle Eastern dips, plus a modest roster of salads, sandwiches and pizzas fashioned from them.
The food service starts at 2 p.m. and continues through the evening, when young people crowd in to dine on ingenious Moroccan sliders that are like souped-up lamb kefte burgers, paved with salty, oil-cured Moroccan olives and shockingly effective slices of orange. The earthy Rousillon Rouge flows by the glass, young men wander off the street to pick out gelato from a rainbow display, and a jazz quartet busts out with “Route 66.”
Before 2 p.m., the hospitable Market Bar space with its sleek silvery industrial chairs functions as an ad hoc dining room for self-serve breakfasts or lunches gleaned from the store’s various counters. You can pick out a walnut-stuffed mamoul confection dusted with powdered sugar or assemble your favorite dips and grab a stack of pita loaves, then repair to the Market Bar for a cappuccino to go with them.
On Sundays, the Market Bar is the scene for what has to be the most democratic jazz brunch in town. Perhaps the queenly Diunna Greenleaf will be belting old-school gospel, prowling the floor and bantering with patrons as she extracts maximum mileage from “How Great Thou Art.” Staffers in crisp white shirts provide table service for pomegranate mimosas, wines, draught beer and coffee drinks, and they take orders from a limited menu of deli platters and pizzas.
But diners are welcome to bring in more traditional breakfast dishes from the sandwich counter out in the store, which on Sunday mornings is set up with a small buffet of eggs, crustless quiche, biscuits and bacon and sausage and the like, some of which can be fashioned into pita-wrap sandwiches. You can spend a little or a little more, eat from plastic or china, drink a can of soda you’ve grabbed or sip a sparkling rosé from really good glassware — an item on which the Tcholakians did not stint.
It’s a great Houston scene. The food? It’s mostly good to pretty good, same as Phoenicia’s restaurant on the west side. The gelati may not be the smoothest, the pastries the flakiest, the meats the juiciest. But once you’ve identified some favorites, you can dine well here and bask in the totality of the Phoenicia Downtown experience, which is the main attraction.
The chicken shawarma sandwich is a staple for me, as are the muhammara dip of red pepper paste with walnuts and that Armenian string cheese tossed with herbs and red chile flakes. I always revel in the coffee-bean crunch of the Turkish Coffee with Cardamom gelato, an eccentric effect that’s like a sort of sublime grit.
From the Market Bar menu I love those little Moroccan lamb sliders with their crumble of shanklish cheese (a mix of feta and milder akawi laced with warm spices); their garlic aioli cut with lebni, the tart yogurt cheese; and their vibrant garnish of dark citrus olives and fresh orange. And oh, yes, a tangle of twiggy french fries, some crisped-to-brittle, others a bit soft, that get a dusting of za’atar and lemon zest. They’re irresistible even after a spell in the warming tray, which is saying something.
I admire the multicultural fun of the Haig’s chili, good ground chuck interspersed with favas and garbanzos, with a final Middle Eastern flourish of radish, garlic, lemon zest, olive oil and scallion. Why the hell not?
I am more or less agog at the version of fattoush, the salad incorporating pita croutons, that tilts fruitward with the addition of ripe strawberries and raspberry balsamic to the traditional lineup of mini tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, parsley and mint. Somehow it works as a refreshing hybrid of salad and dessert.
I cannot recommend the pasty Market Queso, an unpleasantly textured blend of international cheeses that just don’t click together. Nor was I taken with a pizza with a “rustic olive” crust that came off stodgy and inert, a drag on its otherwise sprightly topping of Armenian-style garlic ground beef, red peppers and lemon. A mushroom pizza with a yeasty ciabatta crust on another day fared much better.
I have learned, to my sorrow, that brunchtime brioche french toast does not take well to a steam table — although slightly honeyed biscuits and strips of surprisingly crisp bacon are thoroughly swell. I puzzled over a bland, rubbery crustless quiche on that same jazz brunch lineup, but my dogs received the leftovers as if I had thrown them a party.
And I have marveled over the open, eager attitude of the staff here, who really seem engaged in their work and their customers. Perhaps the secret is that Tcholakians, as an admiring bartender told me as he poured me a sample of Roussillon blanc, offer the kind of benefits — including insurance — that are rare in the food industry.
In the end, it’s not so much the food as the Phoenicia phenomenon that matters: the festive sense of abundance; the down-to-earth quality and pricing; the variety and dazzle of one of the classic Continental food halls reimagined for the everyday shopper, not the elite.
As much as Phoenicia offers a window on the world, it offers a window on our own city, one in which big ethnic grocery stores function as key institutions. Ever since Fiesta Mart launched its international section and emphasized its Mexican products back in the 1980s, ethnic markets have loomed large in our collective imagination.
Today such stores as Hong Kong Market, the Korean HMart and Viet Hoa are practically tourist attractions, as well as common ground where diverse groups of citizens come together on a regular basis. Such stores are engines that drive Houston’s sense of itself as a vibrant, workable melting pot.
Walk through Phoenicia Downtown. Eat a little. Hang out. You’ll see it happening before your eyes, which is why this splendid new business matters.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods & MKT Bar
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.