A Guide To Lebanese Food In Bay Ridge
Local expert Jeanette Chawki shows us her favorite spots in the neighborhood for mezze, za’atar pies, and more.
Most of what I know about Lebanese food, I learned from Jeanette Chawki. An instructor with women’s cooking organization League of Kitchens, which runs immersive cooking classes taught by legit grandmas from around the world, Chawki is the kind of person who adopts you into her family the moment you meet her. This is a good thing, because she is not only an excellent cook (I still think about the tabouleh salad I had at her apartment in Bay Ridge several years ago), but a phenomenal teacher.
Growing up in Lebanon’s capital city of Zahlé, Chawki learned to cook from her aunts as a teenager. Tabbouleh was a particularly memorable dish for her, and she’s taken pains to perfect it. She’s now taught countless students to make her tabbouleh as well as a host of other Lebanese dishes.
photo credit: Kafta from Karam. Photo: Carina Finn Koeppicus
Chawki emigrated to Bay Ridge from Lebanon in 2006. Her brother had already settled in what the New York Times called “the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab community,” and having family in the neighborhood made the transition much easier.
“When you’re moving, you need someone to help you … you know, this is your church, this is the store you buy from. America is so different from Lebanon, streets, language, food, everything is totally different,” Chawki says.
photo credit: Dates from Balady Market. Photo: Carina Finn Koeppicus
Bay Ridge is home to communities of many Middle Eastern cultures, and it’s readily apparent through the food. At Antepli Baklava on 5th Avenue, you can find Turkish ice cream infused with mastic and sahlep to give it a unique stretchy texture. Then there’s renowned Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen, or the Lebanese spot Le Sajj where those in the know flock for pillowy piles of finely minced raw beef, and so much more.
The best way to experience the full breadth of Bay Ridge’s food is with recommendations from a local, and I was lucky enough to have Chawki show me the ropes. A few years ago, I took a five-hour-long cooking class in her apartment. It remains one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a kitchen, and now I take regular trips to Bay Ridge to stock up on dried mint, good labeh, and rosewater at Balady, a massive halal market complete with full butcher counter in the back. It’s worth noting that Chawki prefers the butcher counter at Bay Root Meats, a smaller shop just down the road from Balady.
At the heart of Chawki’s teaching style is her passion for sharing Lebanese food and culture. That same passion is shared by many proprietors of the restaurants on the below list of her favorite spots to shop and eat in Bay Ridge.
Jeanette Chawki's Favorite Lebanese Spots in Bay Ridge
If you want to eat kibbeh, go to Le Sajj, one of Chawki’s favorite restaurants in Bay Ridge and an excellent choice for special occasions. Chawki recommends first-timers order the “Lebanese Garden” to start, which will give you a taste of several classic mezzes like hummus, tabouleh, and grape leaves.They have three types of raw kibbeh as well as a few baked and fried options. The pumpkin kibbeh is delightfully crisp and packed with herbs and spices, but you should also take the opportunity to try the kibbeh nayeh, a pile of raw minced beef mixed with bulgar and herbs that’s traditionally eaten wrapped in a bit of flatbread and garnished with raw onion, mint, and olive oil. The kafta khishkas—a sort of Lebanese meatball dish served on a bed of rice pilaf—is exactly what Chawki means when she means that this kind of food is “spiced, not spicy.”
Chawki likes Karam for Lebanese-style sandwiches, which are served wrapped in flatbread, stuffed with pickles, and drizzled with a pungent garlic sauce that perfectly compliments the richness of Karam’s shawarma. The falafel balls here are crisp, fluffy, and fragrant with cumin and garlic, and the rice pilaf that’s served with the platter is memorable in its own right. In the front of the restaurant, you’ll see a rotisserie oven spinning whole chickens and a display of za’atar pies and lahmajeen—sometimes referred to as “Lebanese pizza.”
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“Really the Lebanese baklava is different,” Chawki says. “We make it with pistachio. It’s less sweet, and so crunchy.” Once you’ve had baklava from Hookahnuts, you’ll know exactly what she means. This sweet shop is run by Ziad and Doha Khaled, who emigrated from Lebanon to Brooklyn in 1975. Their selection changes periodically, so it’s best not to go with your heart set on a particular sweet, but to pick whatever appeals most on any given day. Come early (they open around 10am, but like many businesses in Bay Ridge, operating hours are sometimes merely a suggestion) before they sell out of homemade semolina cakes, baklava, and other Lebanese desserts. They also have an excellent selection of Turkish delights, nougat candies, dried fruits and nuts, and of course, hookahs.
Balady is one of the best halal markets in Brooklyn, and you can easily spend an hour or two wandering the aisles and picking up everything from Syrian-grown dried rose petals to an entire lamb’s torso at the butcher counter in the back. They have an excellent selection of house-made pickles, olives, and preserved lemons, as well as a vast array of jarred preserves. The first time I went shopping here was with Chawki, and she turned me on to one of my favorite kitchen staples: a Lebanese brand of labneh (look for the one with the cypress tree on the container) that’s so rich and creamy it might replace both yogurt and sour cream for you. It’s also worth popping into Balady’s homegoods store, which is one door over, where you can find cookware as well as some gorgeous coffee and tea sets.
If the vastness of Balady is overwhelming, or if you simply prefer a more intimate shopping experience, head to nearby Bay Root Meats. This bodega-sized market is home to Chawki’s favorite butcher, and it’s a great option if you’re making something that requires a bit of a collaboration with your meat purveyor. You can come here with an agenda, or you can simply browse and end up leaving with several bags of treats and ingredients you didn’t know you needed, like jars of pickled radish and wreaths of fluffy, sesame-studded bread. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the store is especially well-organized.