Lebanese Queso and More at the Fabulous New Phoenicia Downtown

Categories: Grocery Guide

Phoenicia Downtown 032.jpg
No, seriously. I want to live inside that bowl.
I feel almost obligated to turn in my Texan card for saying this, but the "queso" I enjoyed at the MKT Bar (1001 Austin) inside the new downtown Phoenicia grocery store earlier this week was better than any Tex-Mex queso I've ever had.

This has troubled me as much as it has delighted me. I expected the food at MKT Bar to be good. After all, Arpi's Phoenicia Deli -- the restaurant arm of the original Phoenicia on Westheimer -- is good. But I was never expecting MKT Bar to be this good, nor this creative.

"You might have unintentionally opened the best new restaurant downtown," I joked to Ann-Marie Tcholakian on Tuesday night, as she told me about the queso that was largely her invention. Tcholakian, the daughter of owners Bob and Arpi Tcholakian, just grinned shyly.

"We just wanted to open a place where people could come and hang out and enjoy themselves," she replied. And get killer food, like the inventive queso. The dip is a four-cheese blend of beemster, white cheddar, gruyere and kefalograviera, but the crowning glory of the thing is the crumbled kibbeh on top.

The cinnamon and nutmeg of the beef kibbeh bring out all of the wonderful salt, butter and caramel flavors in the cheese blend, the whole thing begging to be poured on top of the thin pita chips served on the side (made in-house, naturally). It tastes absolutely nothing like queso and everything like queso might dream of being after spending a night in Phoenicia's richly scented aisles.

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This new downtown Phoenicia is so much more than the warehouse on Westheimer, in a wildly different way. The second-generation influence of Ann-Marie and her brother Haig -- who buys the store's wine, beer and cigars -- is felt in more modern and elegant touches. The store itself is a marvel of engineering, thanks to Bob Tcholakian's background as an architect: Phoenicia is able to bake all of its bread and other goods on site because of the intricate way in which he designed the elaborate venting system beneath One Park Place's residential units and parking garages.

Inside the store itself, I was reminded of the original Phoenicia's cheerfully bare-bones style. Cash registers aren't big affairs with magazine stands or cold drink fridges; they're just clean and efficient. Displays aren't gaudied up with seasonal trinkets, and SALE! signs don't blare at you from every corner. All that room is filled instead with a vast meat and fish selection, a large produce area and a bakery nearly as large as the one on Westheimer. It may be an urban spacesaver, but Phoenicia Downtown offers a hell of a selection.

Upstairs, there's a bit more headroom than in the lower-ceilinged bottom floor, and it's filled nearly to the rafters with wine, dry goods and specialty food items. You can also see into the top floor of the bakery from here, and watch the conveyor belts at work as they float the puffs of pita bread gently down to the floor below.

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Back downstairs, though, MKT Bar is already just as crowded as the store itself. The secret got out fast, and by 5 p.m. on Tuesday night it was already pleasantly busy with businessmen fresh off work and shoppers taking a nip of wine before hitting the store. MKT Bar offers a full menu of both beer and wine, and Haig Tcholakian has been sure to keep some unusual selections available on draft: I enjoyed both a Piraat and an Alamo Golden Ale while I was there.

Aside from the queso, the menu resonates with unique dishes like fries dusted with za'atar and served with tzatziki and Moroccan ketchup, a Farmer's MKT pizza with spinach, pears, roasted shallots and more of that kefalograviera cheese, and gelato sandwiches, one of which is served with house-candied bacon clinging to its chocolate interior.

Although the grocery store itself is vital -- especially in a central business district with no other grocery stores to speak of, and especially with its great selection of pre-made, to-go items -- I feel that it's the MKT Bar that will ultimately function as the catalyst to make Phoenicia into something greater.

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I'm envisioning doing some drunk meat-and-seafood-splurging here.
Already, the restaurant-and-grocery-store combo is bringing in visitors to the George R. Brown Convention Center and people staying at the mega-Hilton across the street. Residents who live above it in One Park Place won't be singlehandedly keeping Phoenicia open, especially not with the ample parking that will surely draw Heights and Montrose residents in as well. And, like Hubbell & Hudson in The Woodlands, there's a one-two punch that will keep them there even longer: restaurant then grocery shopping? Or grocery shopping and then restaurant? You'll want to stay here for a good few hours either way.

And even though the grocery store keeps pretty regular hours, MKT Bar will be open until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. I can't shake the feeling that Phoenicia is going to be a pulse point for downtown Houston for a long time to come, and that it's exactly what we've been needing all these many, grocer-less years.



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Location Info

Arpi's Phoenicia Deli & Coffee House

12151 Westheimer Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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19 comments
Esolsen1
Esolsen1

Actually the guy that owned the Haute Texan Tacos (Jason Jones) developed that enitre menu for the MKT Bar including the Lebanese Queso.  He left the company a few weeks before the downtown opening.  After a review like this I'll bet he was wishing he hadn't left!

Chickbooks
Chickbooks

Actually it is not a microwave (I asked) it is a convection oven used to toast the sandwiches. During the lunch rush they stand there and cut the meat and put it in the containers, they don't cut it per person. The line already takes about 20 minutes during the rush. Can you imagine how long it would take if they cut it for each sandwich? I will say (since I stood in line forever) that I watched the guy cut and drop into the pan over and over so it is pretty warm and fresh. And since I have eaten lunch there several times I have gotton them "as is" and toasted and the toasted does crisp up the bread.

Jodie E
Jodie E

Loved the store itself but the lamb gyro I had was nothing special - dry meat and the pita was tough and chewy even though it is made right ther. It was microwaved right before they handed it to me. The cucumber salad on the side was the highlight of the plate.I think the food is different in the MKT ... that's where I would eat vs. inside the store going forward ... the queso sounds/looks incredible.

Ed T.
Ed T.

I. Want. That. Queso.

~EdT.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I was sorely unimpressed with the chicken and lamb gyro meat I received also.  I will try the "Queso" when I get a chance, but I'm not expecting much.  We shall see...

Mag
Mag

Interesting...I'm going to have to try that queso when I go.  It was probably better because it has real cheese (?) unlike that other stuff they serve in the restaurants that I call "que es eso" cause I wouldnt call it queso - lol

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

I have an event at the GRB next month. Guess where I will be hanging out in between performances? Lebanese Queso and Alamo Draft. I bet you don't get the opportunity often to use those two together in a piece...

Great article Katharine. You made me wish I was going sooner.TA

ec
ec

We sure weren't impressed with the food when we went.  Instead of serving hot meat off the rotisserie, they were using previously cut meat and pitas that were room temperature and after assembling, putting the pita wrap in the microwave to warm it up.  It was really disappointing.

Ginny Braud
Ginny Braud

Just my luck that the week after I move back to Montrose from Downtown, they open...still, can't wait to get a shawarma!

Robin
Robin

I love the original in Westchase, but if this place is half as great as your description, I can't wait to check it out!  But...

"...and by 5 p.m. on Tuesday night it was already pleasantly busy with businessmen fresh off work..."  I'm curious.  Are women not allowed?  I see a lot of them at downtown happy hours after work, so it's bizarre that you didn't see any at MKT Bar unless they're unwelcome.

Newman
Newman

I am now ready to live downtown!

ec
ec

We went about 2:30 in the afternoon and there was no line.  That's why I found it odd they were not cutting it fresh from the rotisserie.  Mine was wrapped in paper prior to putting it in the appliance.  Most convection ovens have the food exposed to the heat which is why I will say it's a microwave.  Food won't toast when it's covered.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

In the MKT Bar or in the store? I ask because I ordered a shawarma to take home from inside the store, and they cut it straight off the rotisserie...

Katy
Katy

OMG if you are a single lady this is THE place to be at lunch!!!!

Matthew
Matthew

in grammar, the masculine is the correct form to use when referring to a group that contains both sexes.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Heh. Women are welcome; I was there, after all. And yes, I saw women too. But there were lots of suits the evening that I was there.

ec
ec

From the store.   I mentioned this to a friend who went this week and she said that they put hers in the microwave as well.  I guess the microwave was put on the end of the steam tray line just for this reason.

Kyle
Kyle

Odd. Maybe an equipment problem? The times I've been they were slicing hot off the presses.

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