The Mediterranean Bakery
Thirty years ago, there wasn’t a pita chip to be found in most Richmond grocery stores.
Can you imagine a world without pita? Such a crisis is unthinkable to modern residents, but the truth is that the diversity of food in the area has grown over the past few decades. Surprisingly, the man who first introduced pita to the area and filled this culinary void does not live in fame. Instead, he boasts a humble restaurant along Quioccasin Road – an unassuming exterior that hides a truly extraordinary eatery.
An always-busy parking lot surrounds the deli, with rarely a quiet day to be found. Inside, chalkboard menus declare the day’s specials, while rows of honey-gold baklava glitter on the wall. Behind the counter, Bassam “Sam” Abed, the owner’s son, greets us with a warm smile and we know at once that we are welcome.
Despite its humble location, the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli is a local favorite with rising popularity – in fact, one man interrupted us during our interview to insist that they had the best kebobs in town. Intrigued by this praise, we asked Sam to give us some insight into the journey that introduced pita to grocery stores. “It’s a long history,” Sam reflects thoughtfully. “My dad…and my mom are the ones who started the business. They’ve been doing business in Richmond for forty-something years.”
Within that time, Sam’s father introduced local markets like Ukrop’s to their trademark pita bread and chips. This contribution, Sam explains, was founded in their cultural appreciation of fresh bread. “In the [Palestinian] culture, pita bread is eaten a lot, there’s a lot of bread eaters. Overseas there’s literally a baker on every other corner…here, there’s nothing fresh made anywhere.” This lack of quality was concerning enough to Sam’s father that he decided to take action. What started as a job in a Royal Bakery Factory quickly became a larger enterprise.
“It was basically one little shelf for groceries, and one little deli, and then a huge kitchen. And so my mom and two of my cooks that are back there now, they’ve been with us for over twenty years and they’re still cooking,” Sam boasts. Time and originality both play a role in giving the food its high quality. “All the dishes you see there are from recipes she either created herself or learned from her mom.”
But these dishes have not forgotten their heritage – hailing from distant Palestine, Sam’s family has carefully preserved both the flavors of home and pride of their country. “My family is Palestinian. My dad came when he was 16 years old,” Sam explains. As for himself? “I’m the youngest of three boys, and all of us were born here.”
It would appear that spending most of his life in the states has balanced his perspective of his heritage, allowing him to be at home in both cultures. When asked what languages he speaks, he laughs. “Me? English. Broken Arabic is my specialty.” Though he himself is more comfortable dealing in English, his father clings to his native language. His fluency in Arabic proves useful in business and tackling the diversity of customers, Sam explains. “Arabic is the most used for the customers. You know, we have a lot that come from all over, so I have Bangladesh cooks, I have Afghani cooks, I have people from all different nations. So we’ll have people speaking Farsi in the back and Bosnian in the back.”
This diversity extends to the menu, a Palestinian blend of Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrian cuisine. When asked which item goes the quickest, Sam reflects for a moment. “That would be very tough. I’d say my bestsellers are the triangle pockets.” For those interested in experiencing a taste of culture, be sure to check out the fatayer pies for a convenient snack. For a heartier meal, don’t miss out on sampling eggplant moussaka, lentils and rice, and the zesty, crispy pita chips. But any costumer knows that a trip to the Mediterranean Bakery is not complete without a slice – or two, or three – of their signature baklava.
When asked about the crowning jewel of desserts, Sam gives us some helpful context of the culture behind the flaky layers. Lebanese Baklava, when compared to the traditional Greek style, is smaller, with less syrup, but decidedly decadent.
With these delicious distractions, it’s easy to come in for food and miss the bakery’s less obvious appeal: a growing global community. Sam describes the customer demographic as well mixed. “We do have a lot of ethnic customers, so we see a lot of the refugees that come in, you know. I have a lot from the Arab community, a lot from the Sudanese community, a lot from the Turkish community, and we have a lot of Americans, a lot of people who come from all walks of life. We got the doctors and the lawyers, and then we’ve got the construction worker guy, too.” He laughs.
Besides giving foreign-born families a taste of home and Americans an unusual experience, the Mediterranean Bakery goes on to produce an entirely new creation: mixed-culture food that both satisfies and educates. “So that chicken pizza I was telling you about?” Sam grins. “This is actually a traditional Palestinian dish. Overseas, they don’t do it this way, this is a creation my mom made to sell it here.”
So what’s amazing about the bakery is not only what it brings to the area, but the new fusion that is created in the process. Lebanese pride, American influence. Something new, unique, and distinctly Richmond. An original kind of cuisine that is not only delicious but healthy, ethnic, and belonging to all.
Ask the people of Richmond and they tell you we’ve entered a new generation of food – and with it, a global community to mix, mingle, and celebrate all that makes us different and unites us together.
Visit the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli, 9004 Quioccasin Road, Richmond, VA.