Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Palestinian makes a go of a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves falafel but no alcohol in a Southern college town

(To the left is local restaurant owner Maher Alqasas. This little feature by Joe Atkins appeared in the Sept. 4-10, 2013, edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

OXFORD, Miss. – The great journalist, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food A.J. Liebling loved to venture off the beaten tracks of New York and Paris to find little restaurants and bistros overlooked by the culinary critics and trend-setters but where a man with a taste for good dining could enjoy himself.

Liebling knew such places—“lost Atlantises” he called them--often have a precarious existence. “The small restaurant is evanescent,” he writes in his 1959 classic Between Meals. “Sometimes it has the life span of a man, sometimes of a fruit fly.”

A more recent writer, the former chef and current TV food and travel personality Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about the perils of the restaurant business in his own book Kitchen Confidential: “To want to open a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?”

Maher Alqasas, 50, a native of the Mount of Olives in Palestine and longtime resident and veteran restaurant owner here in Oxford, acknowledges the risks. “This is a tough business. Imagine working 12 hours a day and having a smile on your face for 12 hours, and to like what you do. The kitchen is a fireball, booming, loud, and I have to be a part of that. What makes it worth it at the end of the day in seeing the smile on their faces.”

He’s talking about the smile on the faces of customers at his Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant Petra Cafe, open since February, a long, narrow stretch of a place in the corner of the town’s famous Square that once housed Wiley’s shoe shop and later Parrish’s bar. “Food is the moment of celebration,” says Alqasas, who grew up in Qatar, “because when you are hungry you are willing to eat anything, but if you know you are eating something good, it is a joy. You are nourishing your body.”

The food at Petra--falafel, kibbeh, hummus, labneh, dolmas, chicken shawerma, shish kabob, gyros with tiziki sauce—isn’t exactly what you’d find on the tables of most Southern homes. But it’s just as homemade and just as likely from old family recipes, says Petra chef and Alqasas’ wife, Angela, also a native of Palestine. “My customers come to my kitchen and tell me it’s the best falafel they’ve ever had, customers from Chicago, Michigan,” she says with pride. “I love it. I remember when I was a kid, my mom asked me to do the falafel. We used to help my mom. I learned from my mother and my mother-in-law.”

The Alqasas—their three children work at Petra, too--like the idea of a homey atmosphere, even though home for them would be exotic to most Oxonians. The walls feature paintings of street scenes and merchants from Old Egypt. The music is Turkish, the carpet at the front door is Persian. “I’m trying to keep the Oxford look, too, the old and new,” Maher Alqasas says. “This is an old building (a century old, he estimates) but with fresh legs … new ceiling, new floor, new electrical, new everything.”

Still, running a successful restaurant on Oxford’s Square can require more than good food and good atmosphere. Most of the two dozen or more restaurants and bars on or near the Square also serve alcohol. They’re why the town’s thriving night life rivals that of much larger cities. Petra allows brown-bagging but serves no alcohol.

Does it hurt business? “It does,” Alqasas admits, “but eventually it is going to be known. Customers can bring their own. It is worth the wait. It is all about the food.”

Alqasas is Muslim. His religious faith is one reason he wants to avoid serving alcohol. Another is the bar he once had in an earlier version of Petra a few blocks away. “It made my life miserable as far as inventory, keeping kids working, no stealing. … I don’t want to be a part of it.”

At least some of his customers don’t mind. “It didn’t stop us,” said Ole Miss student Shelby Herring, a 21-year-old hospitality management major from Houston, Texas, during a recent meal there with her friend and fellow Ole Miss student Molly Thrush. “I like Mediterranean food. I’m a vegetarian, so I like the falafel (fried ground vegetables), the salads, the hummus. Back home, I’d go once a week to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.”

Restaurants typically take a couple years to turn a decent profit. Petra just suffered through the summer doldrums that tend to hurt the bottom lines of most college town businesses. Many tables remained empty during the summer evenings.

“I am a patient person,” Alqasas says. However, he admits, he was more than ready for the fall invasion of Ole Miss students.