We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
The flavors of the Middle East are clearly having a moment. There's been a surge of cookbooks celebrating the recipes of the region. Ingredients such as sumac, preserved lemon, and za'atar have muscled their way into American kitchens. And the hummus-forward Israeli food boom had origins here with the opening of Zahav in Society Hill in 2008.
But Bitar's, the small grocery / grill, has been selling Middle Eastern grocery staples in South Philadelphia since the 1970s - first at 10th and Annin Streets, and since 1996 at the corner of 10th and Federal, across from Pat's and Geno's.
When brothers Jude and Amin Bitar took over the business from their parents, Elias and Mariette, 20-plus years ago, they added a full menu of dishes heavily influenced by their Lebanese heritage. It's a counter-service situation with just a few tables to dine at amid the shelves of spices, condiments, cheeses, and breads.
Bitar's falafel sandwich, a huge and filling wrap, is probably the smartest $3 you can spend on lunch right now.
This part of South Philadelphia around 10th and Federal was once the heart of the Lebanese community here. How has it changed?
Some of the families still live in the area, the Lebanese families. But a lot of the kids from my generation, I'm 51, moved out to the suburbs like my brothers and I did . . . for better schools. Some of the older folks are still here, but many, like my parents, have passed away. There is still a Lebanese church right on the corner of 10th and Ellsworth. That is where I was an altar boy.
Back then, were most of your customers Lebanese?
A lot, but not all. There were different ethnicities, Iranian, Persian. We've always had Israeli customers. But when my parents opened the shop, it was mainly Lebanese.
Do you have a broader customer base now?
Yes, there's a greater diversity of people coming in. More and more Americans. Right now, it's maybe 50-50 Americans to Lebanese and other Middle Eastern customers. I think it's because this style of food is great, healthy food.
What makes Bitar's falafel different from others around here?
Different regions in the Middle East use different ingredients. For instance, my family is from north Lebanon, and in that region we use dried chickpeas and dried fava beans. All the spices are the same, but the mix of beans is different. Egyptians use only fava beans in their recipe. Israelis use only chickpeas. Also, we grill our falafel instead of deep-frying them. That's not Lebanese; it's our twist on it. We wanted to make a healthier version. Again, we experimented. Mom, myself, and my brother tested different recipes to make it work.
What are your most popular menu items here?
The biggest seller is the gyros, the different variations of gyro.
What are the best-selling grocery items?
People come here for the fresh pita bread, the hummus, the baba, the tabbouleh. It's all freshly made. To-go foods are probably the best-selling items, and the fresh pastries that we get from Shatila Bakery in Detroit, Mich. A long time ago, when Mom and Dad first opened up, they would make the pastry themselves. They would make the baklava. I tried a lot of different pastries. . . . The one that in my mind comes as close to Mom's as possible is Shatila. I found them by word of mouth in the Lebanese community.
What hard-to-find ingredients do people come for?
The pomegranate molasses, the harissa sauce, the hot sauce, the halvah. But my favorite, I'm telling you these things are addictive, are the roasted squash seeds. If you start on those, you can't stop. They're like pumpkin seeds, but better. It's one of the most popular Lebanese snacks.
I've heard you want to sell the building and expand to a larger space.
I would like to have more tables. People ask if we can have more of a sit-down restaurant. We're still looking for the right opportunity. It has to have a kitchen to produce the food, and also a grocery. And we want to stay in this neighborhood.