Fond memories of a Turkish cooking class have you pouring over the recipes. Dolmas without grape leaves? Kofte without the proper meat and spices? And what about fresh pita bread?
Before you give up on the dream, it’s time for a short trip to Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston.
For the last 40 years, Phoenicia Specialty Foods has been bringing the world’s food to Houston and bringing people together in the process. Founders Zohrab and Arpi Tcholakian immigrated to Houston from Lebanon in 1978. As the oil industry faltered, the Tcholakians decided to follow their passion for food.“They definitely wanted to share their roots and staples from our family dining table,” daughter Ann Marie Tcholakian said of her parents who are of Armenian descent, “but they also wanted to be inclusive and be inviting of other cultures.”
They opened Phoenicia Deli on Westheimer Road in 1983. The deli whetted many a patron’s appetite for food from home, so the Tcholakians started selling cases of hard-to-find specialty foods from their own warehouse.
As the demand grew, the Tcholakian family opened the 55,000-square-foot Westheimer supermarket and adjacent Arpi’s Phoenicia Deli. The Phoenicia Specialty Foods Downtown and in-house MKT Bar opened in 2011 and became the first downtown grocery store in four decades.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods specializes in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, European, and Eastern European foods, but the family imports food from 50 countries worldwide. Their stores reflect the melting pot that is Houston — a city in which nearly a quarter of the residents are foreign-born, 145 languages are spoken, and 94 countries have consulates.
The city’s diversity is evident in Phoenicia Specialty Foods. “Our family sees how the power of food, gathering, and celebration brings people together,” Ann Marie says. Whether you’re shopping for ready-made food or specialty ingredients for dishes you’ve sampled abroad, a visit to Phoenicia Specialty Foods is like a trip to the United Nations on a good day.
Maybe it’s the soothing fresh-baked-bread aromatherapy. Forty- to fifty-thousand loaves of pita bread are whisked from the mezzanine bakery to the Westheimer market’s shelves by way of the Pita Belt daily — a conveyor belt that Zohrab, an engineer, designed to cool the bread after leaving the 1200-degree ovens.
Near the pita bread, zaatar bread, and crisp Italian breadsticks, you’ll see deli cases with salads, hummus, and baba ganouj as well as a 25-foot olive bar. Looking for Lebanese olive oil to drizzle on the hummus? You’ll find it in the company of Palestinian, Greek, Spanish, and Italian varieties in an aisle devoted solely to olive oil.
If you’re making hummus from scratch instead, you’ll find a mind-boggling selection of tahini. Among the legumes, you’ll not only find the necessary garbanzos, but also lupini beans (natives of the Middle East) cozied up to black turtle beans (originally from Mexico and smaller, shinier, and milder than black beans); you’ll see Israeli wines socializing with Chilean varieties.
Indeed, Old World ingredients mingle with New World ones, just as customers from around the globe mingle and shop for their favorites from home. “Food is our common ground, a universal experience,” James Beard once said. And while food is a necessity, what and how we eat can define our heritage and culture.
As you stroll through Phoenicia Specialty Foods, you’ll see ready-made dolmas or grape leaves to make your own. You’ll discover a spice selection that rivals that in Istanbul’s spice market. You’ll find ready-to-eat food that transports you from Houston to the world at large — from Armenian lavash bread and Moroccan couscous to Belgian ale and Turkish coffee. All, coincidentally, are on UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” foods. And even though Arpi’s walnut baklava isn’t on that list (as it should be), it makes a delightful finish to your Turkish meal and makes the world a sweeter place.