“It’s called Manoushe Zaatar,” Yasmin said, handing over a slice of flatbread.
The dough was thin and delicately oiled, layered with aromatic Zaatar spice, slightly chewy, and still hot from the oven. She rolled a ball of dough out on the counter, pressing the rolling pin with the flat of her palms. She spooned the slightly salty spice mixture onto each round of dough and smoothed it right to the edge. Yasmin is from Syria, and is an expert baker and cook at Caravan Grill.
Caravan Grill, a new extension of Caravan Market, has only had its doors open for three weeks. The market, a fixture in Tucson for over 30 years, is owned and operated by the Solieman family from Libya.
“After 30 years, I feel like my dad got kind of bored with the same routine, after adding product and keeping customers satisfied,” said Anes Solieman, manager of Caravan Grill and son of owners Khalifa and Nagat Solieman. “We wanted to venture off into the food industry of serving food and not just groceries.”
Both the market and the grill are centered around Mediterranean food, which includes cuisines from Libya, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and North Africa. Different languages can be heard in the kitchen, with chefs from each of these countries all working in tandem. One chef turns skewers of meat on the grill; another plates greens with vinaigrette; a third spoons tabouli onto a dish.
“Everything that we construct is from scratch,” Anes said. “It takes a lot of work. If [customers] could see the work behind the scenes, they would have a deep appreciation for it.
Most of the chefs learned about food and cooking through family tradition when they were younger and bring those skills to the restaurant, giving the food a comforting, homestyle quality.
“Back home in Libya, everyone gets together and sits family style,” Anes said. “There are a lot of foods that you eat with your hands. And when you eat with your hands, there’s no cell phone usage. So that forces the family to get talking and brings more of a community to it. And then tea afterwards. It’s a good hour at least.” This is the experience that the Solieman family want customers to have in the restaurant, as well — an unhurried social time to sit and visit around good food.
Caravan Grill’s menu includes some familiar items, such as hummus, falafel, and tabouli, as well as less familiar items like Lahm bi Ajeen, a beef flatbread. Less familiar items include a brief explanation, making the menu more accessible. The menu also offers a wide range of vegetarian options, and the cooks can accommodate other dietary restrictions.
“The basic menu that we have now is a soft opening menu,” Anes said. “Most people that have eaten Middle Eastern food have seen [the food] or known about [it]. The specials are where we really want to venture off and test people’s taste buds…where we get to be a little bit adventurous.”
The special of the day, Embattan, is a fried potato stuffed with spiced beef, fragrant with cumin and coriander, and glazed with tomato sauce. The Embattan had been made by Anes’ mother, Nagat, who stopped by to explain each element of the special. She also made the Libyan couscous, a small-grain couscous with bits of asparagus and carrot mixed with tangy crushed tomato. Atop the couscous were kebabs, or skewers of blackened chicken. The chicken was tender and smoky from the grill, layered with thin slices of sweet onion.
It was a full plate of food, which came served with a basket of the same chewy, soft Samoun bread that Yasmin was cooking in the bakery. The bread arrived warm, perfect for dipping into the creamy, nutty hummus.
Anes swooped by the table dropping off a bottle of Shark Brand Chili Sauce, a kind of sriracha, he said, only sweeter – a house favorite. It went well on everything — not too hot, not too vinegary, just a bit of heat and tanginess.
Along with the special, we ordered a bottle of Bettino Basil Seed Drink – a lightly sweet mango drink with basil seeds. The basil seeds created a bubbly jelly texture to the beverage, similar to soaked chia seeds. It was bright and refreshing in between bites.
Lastly, we tried Anes’ favorite dessert Kunafeh, a pastry made of shredded phyllo dough layered with a light cream called Qishta and crushed walnuts. The browned threads of phyllo dough are delicate and slightly crisp on top, with a honey sweetness and subtle creaminess from the Qishta inside.
During lunch, a steady stream of customers came in the door, carrying takeout or sitting in. It’s clear the devoted customers who have shopped at the market now frequent the restaurant too. While most customers sit outside at large picnic tables, the indoor seating allows for a view of the kitchen and bakery areas. When the sun is a little too bright, dining inside at one of the wooden chairs, coupled with the cooking aroma lends a feeling of refuge.
When asked what he wanted it to feel like when you walk through the door to the Caravan Grill, Anes replied thoughtfully.
“That you’re at home. That you’re welcome at home. You get your food, you take a seat, and whatever you need, we’re here for you.”
Caravan Grill is located at 2825 N. Country Club Rd. Operating hours are 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. Keep up with Caravan Grill on Facebook.