Oula Nabulsi enjoys a classic Arabic brunch at home (Photos by Yasmin Diallo Turk)
Oula Nabulsi meticulously places a number of small, colorful bowls that she brought from the United Arab Emirates on her breakfast table. “When many Americans think of Arabic food, shawarma and falafel spring to mind,” says the real estate investor, Arabic food Instagram content creator, and mother of three. “They don’t know much about Arabic breakfasts, so it’s like a hidden treasure they have yet to discover.”
The Arabic breakfast is what brings Nabulsi’s family together at the weekends for the longest meal of the week, she explains. “The Arabic breakfast is so special because it’s a little bit of everything, shared and eaten slowly with consideration for everyone at the table.”
Fatteh and foul (sour beans) at Mazaj Cafe
Traditionally, Arabic breakfast is served as a selection of dishes in small shared plates. Nabulsi compares the style of the meal to that of tapas or a charcuterie board, as there are a variety of offerings that can be shared and enjoyed as small bites. Her favorite savory Arabic breakfast ingredients are za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mix usually made with dried herbs such as thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) and olive oil, labneh (a strained yogurt), eggs, green olives, pickles, cheese , field beans, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Some items, like falafel, are considered always-on foods that have a place on both the breakfast and dinner tables. Though most dishes tend to be savory, Nabulsi says it’s common to end the meal with a sweet bite like halawa (a tahini-honey dip) or jam. Hot tea is essential with meals and breakfast is rounded off with a small cup of Turkish coffee.
Manakeesh za’atar at Pita Shack
When eaten later in the day more as a brunch, Nabulsi says it’s common to add heavier hot dishes like fatteh (layered baked flatbread, chickpeas and tahini sauce with roasted pine nuts), kibbeh (a ground lamb and bulgar wheat). -meatballs) and fried vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes or eggplant. In some regions, breakfast includes manakeesh, a flatbread topped with za’atar, cheese, or finely chopped beef.
Nabulsi likes to prepare an elaborate and nostalgic Arabic breakfast when she’s with her family, but for those who don’t have an Arabic mother back home, here are three places in town with some Arabic breakfast options, including one with a full Arabic Breakfast menu coming soon.
The first is Mazaj Cafe in North Austin. This restaurant was opened in 2021 by Chef Ahmed “Eddie” Jarrah, who came to Austin from Houston where he previously owned a larger incarnation of the Mazaj Cafe with his brothers. Jarrah said he opened his coffee shop and hookah lounge concept in Austin because he felt it was different than anything else currently available. Jarrah studied and worked in the hotel and restaurant industry for decades and wanted to create a place that makes people happy and offers the Levantine Arabic cuisine he loves so much. “I’ve worked in the best hotels and in the best places. I make the best food and I want people to have a relaxing place to enjoy it.”
Although traditional small Arabic breakfast setups can be arranged for larger groups, there are popular breakfast items on the menu, which can be ordered individually during weekend brunch hours from 12pm to 3pm. Jarrah recommends the Manakeesh flatbreads, which are topped with either seasoned ground beef, his special signature za’atar mix, or a pepper, bulgar, and pomegranate sauce called “Muhammara.”
A broad bean dish consisting of broad beans, garlic and lemon garnished with tomatoes, parsley and olive oil is one of the most common breakfast dishes. It’s available at Mazaj with or without tahini yogurt and is eaten with flatbread as well as hummus or baba ghanoush.
Hummus at Pita Shack
Fatteh and shakshuka are popular breakfast menu items. Shakshuka is prepared differently in the Middle East and may include a fried egg on a tomato sauce, but Mazaj’s version is more like scrambled eggs with diced tomatoes. Mazaj offers hot tea by the glass or by the pot, with or without mint.
The second place to get an Arabic breakfast in the area is pita hut, a small and unassuming place in a mall in Pflugerville. While they took breakfast off the menu because it was still so unfamiliar to most of their customers, it’s still available to customers who know. Traditional Arabic breakfast setups for larger groups can be arranged; Otherwise there are only breakfast items that can be ordered individually, including a unique Iraqi omelet dish made with soft-boiled eggs on ground beef, parsley, tomatoes and onions called “Makhlama”.
Civil engineer-turned-restaurateur Malik Al Hasani would like to share an Arabic breakfast with his customers. Before owning his own restaurant, Al Hasani was always the chef in his group of friends. During his studies he became self-employed and learned to cook out of necessity. After his marriage, his wife encouraged his culinary enthusiasm. When the opportunity to buy Pita Shack presented itself, Al Hasani jumped at the opportunity to share his love for Arabic food.
The spread at Rumaan Mediterranean cuisine
He took over Pita Shack in 2021 from the original owner who moved from Texas. As a first-time restaurant owner, Al Hasani quickly learned that running a successful business involves much more than preparing delicious and consistent food. Al Hasani says of owning Pita Shack, “What I enjoy most is how happy people are when they eat well.”
The breakfast items that Al Hasani recommends for Arabic breakfast customers are manakeesh za’atar, or cheese flatbreads, served on a thin pizza crust. Labneh, olives, akawi cheese and makhlama are also available to round out Pita Shack’s breakfast offerings. Although hummus is not traditionally a breakfast item in Iraq, it is a breakfast staple throughout the Levantine region. Al Hasani insists Pita Shack has perfected their recipe after many iterations.
The third place that offers Arabic breakfast items is Romanian Mediterranean cuisine. Located at the entrance of Lakeline Mall, it serves classic Levantine Arabic dishes and a full service juice bar with outdoor terrace and indoor dining. Although Rumaan currently only offers a few Arabic breakfast items off the menu, since opening in February 2022, it has been hosting Arabic brunches for groups, cooked to order. Owner Allam Steiteh says they have plans to launch an Arabic breakfast menu for a full weekend This fall there will be a breakfast mezze with small samples of traditional Arabic breakfast items. Steiteh plans for the menu to include all traditional Palestinian and Jordanian breakfast dishes, including two types of chickpea fat, Manakeesh flatbread, grilled halloumi cheese, eggs and fried cauliflower. Turkish coffee and hot tea are also served.
Although Austin’s Arabic breakfast is still a niche offering, Jarrah, Al Hasani and Steiteh all see the potential for increased demand as the dishes become more mainstream. “I like to encourage people to try different foods that they have never tried before,” says Al Hasani. “If someone always has shawarma and falafel, I encourage them to try shawarma. He’ll wish he’d tried it sooner. The same goes for breakfast.”
Jarrah agrees, “I think as soon as people try more types of Arabic food, more fresh Arabic food, the more things they’re going to want to try.”
Nabulsi says her children eat cereal or a typical quick meal most weekday mornings, but as the weekend approaches and her family gets together, it’s time for a traditional spread. She hopes more people will learn about the delicious and often healthy Arabic breakfast recipes. “The Arabic breakfast consists of food that we all slowly share instead of focusing on our own plates. It gives us the opportunity to be together, enjoy each other and take time to enjoy good food.”
Mazaj Hookah & Lounge
13376 Research #100
616 FM 685 Ste. A-108, Pflugerville
Romanian Mediterranean cuisine
11200 Lakeline Mall Dr. Ste. F-18, Cedar Park