The Abdallah family cooks in their kitchen, and their kitchen just happens to be Abdallah’s Lebanese Restaurant and Bakery. Founded over 41 years ago, it was the first Lebanese bakery opened in Houston, making it the first to provide pita bread to the area. Its second and current location has been providing a cornucopia of Lebanese food conveniently right off of Westpark and Hillcroft for over 27 years, and it is now the oldest Lebanese restaurant in Houston.
Several generations of Abdallahs are at the restaurant daily. And Susan Abdallah Hage, currently helping lead the Abdallah’s family business, can be found at the restaurant on most days.
“Really, I get a day off if I’m sick or I have to go to a doctor’s appointment or if I have to do something extracurricular with my kids. We work holidays. I may not be here all day, but I’ll be here,” shares Susan.
“My mother Laurie, who helped found the restaurant, she is the mom of the mom and pop, so you can come anytime during the day and find her,” she adds. “She’s usually here probably 5:30 or 6:30 and she’s usually here, you know, through lunch. We’re trying to get her retired, so my husband Fares and I are now the ones that are trying to lead this.”
When I visited the restaurant, Susan’s mother, father, and son were all there, happily mingling amongst the customers. The restaurant was fairly busy, and there was a subtle smell of simmering, garlic, onions, and spiced meats.
“My father, George, is here just as often. And then Raymond, the little kid over there, that’s my son,” says Susan. “My sister Rita is working here now. So, it’s family, you know.”
The menu at Abdallah’s proudly consists of all authentic Lebanese foods, except for a few specials. Abdallah’s also serves their fresh brewed mint iced tea, which essentially is an exceptionally refreshing mix of Lebanese mint tea and American iced tea.
“Our food is really labor-intensive,” says Susan, remarking on the amount of time required to make truly authentic Lebanese food. “Our ingredients aren’t that expensive. It’s just that the labor is very, it is very intensive when you’re doing it the way we do from scratch.”
For my meal I ordered a beef shawarma. I’ve made a habit of ordering chicken shawarma, so I decided it would be nice to try something different for once. I was not disappointed with my choice, but it made me wonder if which was overall the most popular choice, so I asked Susan what they served the most of at the restaurant.
“Yeah, yeah more people take the chicken. Actually, I take it back! Yeah, It’s pretty even,” she says. “Most of our American clientele like the chicken and the Lebanese do more of the beef or the Arab people, but it’s pretty even.”
Happy that I had made the choice for my meal that most of the restaurant’s Lebanese patrons made, I couldn’t wait to finally get he chance to sample the beef. When the beef finally arrived, I fell in love with the very first bite. I had made the right choice. The beef was incredibly tender, and I could have sworn there was some sort of glorious cheese in my wrap — there wasn’t — but there was a well-made tahini sauce, alongside the beef shawarma meat, tomatoes, pickles, and parsley.
“Nothing comes out of a can. We still boil our own chickpeas for the hummus. We, still, the falafel, when we make it, it comes from scratch. We prepare our own beans,” notes Susan. “Everything is just, that’s, that’s what we’re so proud of. Everything is from scratch. Nothing comes out of a can.”
I asked Susan what inspired her, in particular, to stay with the family business. She shared that, first, she did something for herself and got a degree. She graduated in three years with honors from UH with a business management degree. After that, she was inspired to resume helping support her family and its legacy as well as Abdallah’s evolvement and growth.
“When it comes down to it, my favorite part of the job, it’s the flexibility,” she says. “It’s being able to meet people and see people and I have you know a big unique bond. I mean, I have seen so many kids from, you know, their mother’s stomach to, you know going to college. And you know, it’s… it’s really cool. You have a special bond, so that’s really neat.”
But working with your entire family in a restaurant does create some issues from time to time, notes Susan.
“Okay so the worst part of a family business is just the stress of being in a family and how it’s overall wonderful yet difficult. They have their way of doing something. I have my way of doing something, and that clash is very difficult. So, I think that’s the hardest part of this business,” she says. “Also, when everybody else is enjoying, we’re the ones doing the work. So, we’re doing all that, so, that’s, you know, you wanna be out at that Christmas party but you also have to be the one doing the food!”
The Abdallah family’s kitchen really is Abdallah’s Lebanese Restaurant and Bakery. There is almost no cooking that Susan does in her own home, almost all of her kitchen time is spent int he kitchen of Abdallah’s.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s all we eat. We like to go out whenever we can, but this is our kitchen,” she shrugs. “This is my kitchen. I don’t cook at home. I’m notorious for just remodeling my kitchen right now and being laughed at by my entire family because I don’t use my kitchen.”
I asked about the family’s olive oil brand, Old Country. The brand was started by Susan and her sister, Rita. Her family visits Lebanon yearly to personally pick olives at the family groves, and then hand-press the oil, and hand-bottle it themselves as well, all to make sure it’s going straight from press to bottle.
“It’s premium extra virgin olive oil, not just extra virgin,” she says. “It’s amazing. We produce the oil once yearly and we often run out because it’s such a great product.”
At Abdallah’s, there’s also a small selection of Lebanese goods on shelves for sale. The section has been remodeled several times, as it originally started as more a grocery and just a little bit of deli, including just some shawarma.
“Over the years we just focused on the food because that’s, you know, just what we did best. Now we just kind of keep a refined selection of the staples,” she says. “I mean, really, so much has changed in how Houston sees food. When I was younger and I would take a sandwich with a pita bread, and I would throw it away as soon as I got to school. I would be embarrassed. Nobody took pita sandwiches, you know, back in the ’80s. It was like, ‘What are you eating? What is that?’ Now, American moms are buying the super healthy pita bread all the time and, you know, sending it off to school with their kids.”
Susan claims that working with her family here has also helped her with her Arabic. She said that when she was little, she just spoke broken Arabic, but, now, after working at the restaurant for so many years and engaging with so many different customers, she’s fluent.
And when it comes to the secret of Abdallah’s longevity, Susan has some ideas.
“It’s not so much about success and growth,” she notes. “I just really look up to the vision that my family had in starting this because the dream was to come here. My father’s dream was originally just to come here, make some money, and go back home. You know, it was not to come here and establish something, but he did. My family did.”