MANCHESTER, NH – Life’s funny. Exactly one year ago, our family and a close friend were touring the classical ruins of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon where, dating back to the 1st century, the Roman Empire capitalized on the region’s prized grain and built an architectural wonder dedicated to Zeus.
I am a writer without words.
The palatial temple took three centuries to build. Yet it only took a millisecond for the sight of those megalithic Corinthian columns hitting my retina to be overcome by both the sheer magnitude of their craftsmanship and the depth of their human sacrifice.
En route back to our hotel in bustling Beirut, our tour guide stopped at a traditional Mediterranean restaurant. After six days in this part of the world, we hadn’t had a bad meal yet. I’m convinced it is the original Garden of Eden, forever unspoiled. Where everything is fresh and refreshing. Hummus that doesn’t taste like the tasteless plastic tubs in American grocery stores. Tzatziki that fairly bursts with tangy mint and distinct cucumbers grown in the ancient, volcanic soil of the region. The falafel, lamb gyro, baba ghanouj, the olive oil dressings that suspend exotic herbs and spices found at the souq (market). Every country on the Mediterranean Sea thinks they have the goods on baklava. I wasn’t going to argue.
But one year later – July 21, 2020 – and with the very same dress on – (coincidence?) I’m eating a Mediterranean Feast Salad ($13) and a Chicken Shawarma ($10) with a cold Laziza Peach Malt ($2) at Al Basha Mediterranean Grill, 333 Valley St., and you know what, people? If my eyes were closed, I would swear on my daddy’s grave that I was back on the Mediterranean eating the best food on the planet.
Make no mistake, the Salad Mediterranean Feast is just that. You could feed yourself and a friend easily for $13 bucks. Look at what you get: a variety of greens, cucumber, tomatoes, shredded red cabbage and carrots, bell peppers, red onions, rice, kibbeh, tzatziki, hummus, quinoa, falafel, grape leaves, and Kalamata olives.
The Chicken Shawarma – one of Al Basha’s most popular wraps – is chicken marinated and slow-roasted to perfection on a rotisserie, delicately sliced and slathered with what tasted like glorified Thousand-Island dressing and julienne pickles then all wrapped up in a most enjoyable pita that had a slight crunch on the exterior. There was enough to share, but I wouldn’t.
Al Basha ain’t fancy, but when Al Basha boasts “Home of the Best Falafel,” you best believe it. I am a witness. I’ve gone back twice while writing this article. Falafel Appetizer – six piece ($6), Falalfel Wrap ($7), Falalfel Entrée with three sides ($10).
Chef/owner Omar Abouzaid and his wife, Ibtisam, are no strangers to Manchester or the food biz. They first moved to the area 20 years ago from Morocco to attend Southern New Hampshire University. Ibtisam earning her degree in International Business; while Omar graduated with an MBA before continuing on to get an MS in Finance.
He spent 10 successful years in Boston as an accountant working for the man while his wife gave birth to the first of three sons.
“I became more and more frustrated with my life,” recounts Omar. “Even though I was doing very well with my business career, it felt empty. I was gone so much and so often, it felt like my children didn’t really know me. I would stare at their little faces and wonder who they were.”
He quit and has never looked back even if the road has been bumpy.
In 2009, Omar and Ibtisam started Sahara Market on Massabesic Street that was totally destroyed by fire in 2012. They moved to Elm Street in 2013 but there was no lease option after 2018. Still, the couple didn’t give up so they moved yet again, this time to 333 Valley St., where they continued to offer a market for Middle Eastern dry and specialty goods but also turned their attention to catering. That’s when the temperate Mediterranean breezes started blowing their way.
“Before COVID locked down Boston, we were delivering 40-60 major catering jobs per month to some of Boston’s largest companies,” beams Omar. “People really loved our Mediterranean menu, and the service we provided all around was excellent.”
By now we’ve all learned something about the will to succeed in the face of adversity; in the face of a megalithic hunk of rock that wants us to make something beautiful out of it.
On June 5, Omar and Ibtisam Abouzaid made a humble Mediterranean restaurant with remarkable food.
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Open Tues – Sat 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Closed Sunday & Monday