Meet the Maker

Interviews with local food purveyors.

Meet the Maker of Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery's Spinach & Cheese Pie

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[Photograph: Johnny Auer]

Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery

1512 West Foster Avenue, Chicago, IL; (map); 773-561-2224;
The Dish: Spinach & Cheese Pie
The Maker: Hisham Khalifeh (he goes by Jim)
Cost: $1.75

It's not that Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery is a find. The Andersonville spot celebrated its thirtieth birthday this year, which, given the recent rush of Clark Street closings north of Foster (Frida, Mista, and Kingfisher within the last couple of weeks), is really saying something. The place was found long ago, but yet continues to be found by new faces everyday -- the very words from owner Hisham Khalifeh (he goes by Jim) the day I spoke with him: "Like today even, maybe two customers, the first time they come. Yesterday the same."

The store is lined with dried goods and imports that are flat out tough to source (Jim swears by the imported Arabica coffee from Lebanon), but it also has it own bakery and kitchen on site. The shop makes pita and other breads, and has several reach-ins stocked with spreads and dips and salads, all made in-house. But it's the from-scratch pies that are what the market is best known for.

Jim's bakers have been making these pies for years -- one for over eighteen, another for twelve. How do you quantify the taste that eighteen years of the same set of hands touching the same ingredients, moving through the same motions, day after day injects into a food?

Of his many pies (most days you'll have ten to choose from), I asked Jim which of his pies do well and the answer was unsurprising: "All of them. They move very, very well." And then his eyes widened and filled with something like excitement and in his thick dialect he added, "Spinach and cheese -- the biggest mover. We fill them good."

Before the pies are stuffed, the spinach (he emphasizes that they use young spinach) marinates with feta cheese and a touch of olive oil for two hours. The spinach is chopped, but not so fine, because if it's too fine "it will not be tasty." The mixture is then stuffed into the dough, which is then folded into its signature triangle shape, and baked in a brick oven at temperatures near 650 degrees for 10-15 minutes. "And that is enough," he says on the baking process.

On a given day the bakery might sell 300 pies in the store. On the day I was there, the bakery had also pushed over 600 pies for delivery around Chicago, including Whole Foods. Some of the pies are unique to the store, like the lamb and potato pie and the eggplant pie. These aren't unfamiliar ingredients on the streets of Beirut, but according to Jim stuffing the pies with these ingredients is not authentic to the old country either.

But the question begged to be asked, what's the best way to eat the pies? He says some people like to eat them with his salads -- like the parsley heavy tabouli or the spicy fava bean salad laced with chickpeas, lemon juice, red pepper and a handful of other ingredients. But then others can't resist and bite into the pies, in hand, before they walk out of the store. "So many people, they buy some and they take one just to eat it here or in the car."

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