Around these parts, the cuisine cup overfloweth. The people of Abilene flock to the rib joints as rare in nature as church steeples. But Middle East Restaurant offers nothing of the sorts and owner Sabbah Hammoodi cannot seem to find the time to convert the multitudes.
A scheduled meeting ends before it begins when a table of twelve takes priority. But half an hour later, Sabbah returns with a quick, but beaming, apology. “After them,” he smiles, pointing to a table of two waving regulars.
Middle East Restaurant is tucked between a pool supply store and a nail salon. Little Caesar’s blinding orange and white sign prevents any passerby’s attempt to find Middle East’s modest door. A bleak storefront gives way to a snug and spotless space. At 1:30 p.m., the “lunch rush” consists of three parties, filling three of Hammoodi’s eight tables.
The one waitress buzzes about in blurred bee fashion – waiting, moving, delivering, cleaning. A business meeting, gossiping girlfriends and a family of four occupy the restaurant, tabletops crammed with licked clean plates and those soon to be. Sabbah dashes in and out of the kitchen stopping at their tables for approval of his dishes.
As his customers are finally taken care of, Sabbah crosses his restaurant to the table, exhaling a half-day of fatigue. In fear that hungry diners could interrupt, questions are promptly asked. And re-asked. Answers are double-checked and then clarified. Because even though he once acted as an interpreter for the Air Force in Iraq, normal-paced English is still difficult for Sabbah to decipher.
Suddenly, he catches the family of four beginning to exit and rushes to the door to send them on their way. He exchanges a few foreign words with the mother who receives the apparent kind phrase with a grab of his hand. Persian, Sabbah clarifies. The family, like many who find their way here, are only passing through from Lubbock, stumbling to Middle East’s doors via Trip Advisor recommendations.
His speech is steady and somber, but his worn face is warm. If Sabbah is able to disconnect himself from the thought of serving his customers, he keeps an unflinching eye contact, an intensity broken with the reality of endless duties around him.
His tableside manner has no hidden agenda and any tips received are not for entertaining service. He is cordial, but refraining. Perhaps a reflection of a culturally engrained sternness, perhaps a belief that car salesman demeanor is not on the menu.
Inside, the restaurant is spiced with saffron, and the sounds of pop top-charters. The nine tables are set with red and white-checkered tablecloths with Texas flag printed napkins and Germ-X bottles. Most every element of décor is all too all-American. Behind the counter, an American flag oversees the establishment. On it are sharpied best wishes and signatures from overseas soldiers, his biggest fans.
Middle East could be likened with a D.C. museum gift-shop. Small flags stand at each table. Walls of tacked up military news clippings and Air Force fighter plane posters share estate with travel pictures of historical Middle Eastern landmarks. It is all raving patriotism out of place.
Sabbah keeps not a mere association with the men of the local Dyess Base, but a friendship. This close relationship is kept and shown as expression of his gratitude. His affiliation with the Air Force stems from working alongside the armed services in Iraq after Saddam’s regime fell. With a story of horrors mirrored by many Iraqis, Sabbah, his wife and nine children were eventually transported to America. Abilene’s refugee services aided his exit because of Sabbah’s Air Force connection. For this deliverance, he is eternally grateful. So when men of the base come in, an exchange of greetings takes place, like that between the barman and his weary Wall Streets regulars.
This is not an exclusive bond, though. Middle East Restaurant is a site where Sabbah forges atypical customer relationships. You are a guest in his home, not a client. This is why you will be given a recommendation before giving a request. Sabah will recommend the lamb kabobs and criticize you for your safe selection of chicken. Because a host is given free reign to his opinion.
“My favorite dish? All 39!” He claims to eat at none of Abilene’s eateries but his own.
“No advertising. None.” Hand movements are paired to this statement to assert the pride of owning a restaurant run on customer review and endorsement alone.
With Abuelo’s and popular pizza joints as close neighbors, Sabbah’s restaurant is not lacking in rivalry. But still, the low-key Middle East keeps a surprisingly filled parking lot, proving itself a worthy competitor.
“If I can get one new customer, it is worth it for me. Look at their lot,” he raises in activist-volume, “How many regular customers should they have by now? If I have one new customer, I’m happy.”
Middle East is a restaurant of loyal returning customers, simply making a name for itself. Sabbah strives past status quo to bring you the experience. He does not just stand by this quality, he drives to it. He tells of the Arizona trips to retrieve the long-grained rice and to Dallas for the choicest of meats.
He will be quick to tell you of the restaurant’s #1 ranking on Urban Spoon. He anticipates your skepticism and retorts with eaters’ reviews printed and planted on the checkered tabletops.
When asked who is responsible for the recipes and cooking, Sabbah answers, “Only myself. I’m the only one (in the kitchen).” He glances around, as if assuring himself no magic Keebler elves are stealing credit.
According to the one news piece, the restaurant cooking was a family affair. “They used to,” he says, “Before my wife passed away.” Eye contact is broken, shoulders stiffen and so shows the first and only imprint of pierced protection. He draws a clear line-in-sand of topic averting and repeats, “I am the only one here now.”
Middle East Restaurant uses no lit up sign to lure, no blinking arrows to attract hungry Abilenians. No attention is begged. And that is exactly how Sabah would have it. He holds conversation in fragments because of the ceaseless interruptions that come with owning a restaurant, seeming to strike a theme of Sabbah’s lack of time.
Sabbah believes in time, though. “People here have grown up with this food around them,” he waves, “But once they taste my food, they will change. People just need time.”
Sabbah Hammoodi can best be understood by watching his operating of Middle East restaurant. He willingly answers questions about his personal life, but Sabbah’s character is truly revealed in his solemn warmth while taking customer orders. Pride is taken in every task, with careful delivering of his prized baklava dessert to his already stuffed-to-the-brim patrons. This restaurant is no less than a limb of his body.
The lone waitress presents him with the bill from a table. He rushes to the register as though he was being reprimanded for laziness. Only he is authorized to run the cash register.
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