The Menu—and How we do it at Zankou

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It’s a time-tested truism in the restaurant world that a restaurant’s location is the most important element of an entrepreneur’s business strategy. But the most vital ingredient for a restaurant’s eventual success, all other things being equal, is the quality of the food served. And that’s why a restaurant’s menu—and the planning that goes into it—is paramount in the restaurant business.

It’s not hard to see why. The primary reason why customers patronize a restaurant is the pleasure of the dining experience—not because the restaurant is conveniently located or because it happens to be in a high-class part of town. In fact, according to a survey by Restaurant and Institutions magazine, customers rank food quality above service, value—even cleanliness, which ranks a close second.

Food poses a three-fold challenge for restaurateurs. Making food tasty is almost surely the first and greatest challenge. Related to taste is the twin challenge of creating extraordinary flavors—the kind of food nobody else has in the market. Next comes healthy food options, a trend that has been underway in the United States for years now and is likely to intensify and people’s lives become ever more stressful and at the same time their access to valuable information increases. Finally, a restaurateur must strive to attract food savvy customers—foodies in today’s parlance. These are people who have discriminating tastes and tend to be influential in social circles.

A food’s flavor is the sum total of the sensory experience that people have when the food enters their mouth. Because the perception involves all the senses, it is a combination of everything from aroma, taste and texture to sight and sound.

Among the favorite foods of Wolfgang Puck, one of the world’s most successful restaurateurs and entrepreneurs of frozen foods and a growing soup line, are the brioche-crusted sweetbread with shallot marmalade, and black fig salad and fennel seed as an appetizer. “It excites every part of your mouth—it’s sweet, sour, crunchy, velvety, crispy,” he told food writer Tori Rogers, author of What Inspires Flavor and How it Evolves.

The menus of independently owned restaurants such as Zankou are generally far more creative than those of chain restaurants and franchise restaurants. Further, the culinary skills of chefs in independent restaurants are relatively much more developed and they tend to be innovative. But what kind of menu a restaurant offers ultimately depends on the type of restaurant. A family restaurant such as Zankou, for example, needs to appeal to all ethnic groups—not just Middle Easterners—and therefore offers a range of popular menu items.

Zankou is a regional if not national pioneer in several of its most prized menu items. It was the first family restaurant to introduce rotisserie chicken in the 1970s, and the first to come up with the idea for chicken tarna, that is, marinated, flame-broiled chicken served with humus, tahini sauce, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, pickles and garlic sauce—all wrapped in pita bread. And Zankou’s famous garlic chicken is another invention dating back to 1962 and rooted in the East-West crossroads city of the restaurant’s birth, Lebanon.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from the U.S. media. According to an October 2012 article in the Washington Post—one of the nation’s leading dailies published from America’s capital city—Americans were introduced to rotisserie chicken during the heyday of President Roland Reagan’s rule, which was marked by one the greatest expansions of the rich and upper middle classes in American history. “In 1985, a fledgling shop with Boston in its name skewered and roasted its birds in rotating rows, so they basted each other with seasoned drippings until firm flesh morphed into Sunday dinner succulence,” claims the article. Amusingly titled, “The Bird That Goes Around Stays Around,” the article goes on to grandly declare: “Since then, Americans have made takeout rotisserie chicken as much of a weeknight staple as a box of macaroni in the cupboard.”

The precise origins of rotisserie chicken are shrouded in mystery, although it’s clear from food historians’ accounts that the mechanical, vertical rotisserie was invented sometime in the early 19th century. Whatever the history of rotisserie chicken, it’s fair to say that Americans consume a substantial share of this particular poultry preparation, along with a range of other types of chicken dishes. According to the National Chicken Council, in 2014 the average American will have consumed some 83.5 pounds of chicken, up from 53.1 pounds per capita in 1985, and 33.7 pounds in 1965. (Total red meat and chicken consumption per capita in 2014 is projected to be a staggering 200.6 pounds—or roughly 6 billion pounds!)

Indeed, if America’s tastemakers—both culinary and journalistic—had been paying attention, Zankou may well have won an award for its invention of Chicken Tarna. But alas, even though the famed restaurateur and organic food pioneer Alice Waters had been urging Americans to eat healthier food since the 1970s, it wasn’t as late as 1998 that a company called Ventura Foods teamed up with Nation’s Restaurant News to create the Menu Masters Award, dedicated, among other things, to honoring a single product rollout by a restaurant or company every year. (The 1998 inaugural winner for the Best Single Product Rollout was the Fresh Stuffed Pita by Wendy’s International—a menu item that allowed the Wendy’s corporation to “shed many of its underperforming salad bars,” according to Menu Masters.)

At Zankou, we often pair our pita with falafel, which refers to Middle Eastern deep-fried patties of highly spiced, ground chickpeas, often served with tahini, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, pickles and hummus. Falafel is a widely favored snack around the world, well known from Lebanese takeout shops. There are a couple of different versions of the dish: In Egypt, falafel is made from dried fava beans, whereas in Lebanon, Israel and Syria they are usually made with chickpeas. Some recipes combine the two types.

Pita is also paired with shawerma, an ancient Middle Eastern preparation that includes pieces of marinated, highly seasoned, thinly sliced roasted lamb stacked about two feet tall on a skewer and roasted slowly on a vertical spit facing a flame.

The roots of shawarma can be traced back to Egypt around the 1830s, not long after the invention of the rotisserie, which paved the way for this dish to become one of the favorite Middle Eastern foods. Shawarma is best when it’s prepared fresh to order. As the rotisserie turns, paper-thin slices of caramelized meat are carefully shaved from the roasted surface with a sharp knife. The falling shards are then piled into a pita—traditionally—or eaten with rice.

A close relative of shawarma is the kebab. Often referred to as the shish kebab, it is a form of Middle Eastern gilled or broiled meat that originated in medieval Persia. In fact, sis is a term that means “sword” or “skewer.” The Farsi name for kebab is kabab, which is said to have derived from the Aramaic word kabbaba, meaning “burning” and “charring.” In 1226, a cookbook from Baghdad by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn al-Karim al-Katib al-Baghdadi, contains what’s probably the earliest written record of kebabs and stews. Roasting small pieces of meat is a practice dating back to antiquity. Bedouins—nomads—in the Middle East as well as soldiers cooked meat over open fires. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the people of the Mediterranean region began grilling and broiling meat as kebabs.

Tabbouleh is a salad that we make at Zankou out of bulgur, tomato, chopped parsley and diced onion. It resembles a simple salad made at home. Many restaurants tend to add too much bulgar in the preparation of tabbouleh, which makes for a heavier, less refreshing dish.

No discussion about food at Zankou is complete without garlic. As you can see from some of the Yelp comments below, many of our customers are crazy about Zankou’s garlic sauce. And why not: After all, garlic dates back to the Garden of Eden, according to legend. The Jews of Egyptian bondage are said to have brought garlic with them in the Exodus. The vegetable has been held near sacred by the Hebrews, Greeks and Egyptians alike. The Greeks used it for temple purification, and the Egyptians to invoke gods. Garlic has been used an antiseptic from the earliest times—and to treat the wounds of soldiers during the Great War.

At Zankou, we also serve Tahn, a lightly viscous, tart drink made of yogurt blended with cold water and salt. Tahn serves to ease the effect of spicy meat on the body. Yogurt has an honorable place in Armenian culture, where it is called matzoun. Indeed, matzoun has such a central place in Armenian culture that the Armenian language abounds with expressions based on the word. In Armenian, another form of the well-known expression “Once bitten, twice shy” is: “One who was burned by soup begins to blow on the matzoun.”

Zankou Customer Compliments:

This chicken made me see God.

The tenderest, juiciest chicken ever!

I don’t think this Chicken can be beat!  Juicy & healthy & delicious.

Astrid S., West Covina, CA:

I never really appreciated the taste of chicken until Zankou.  Juicy and tasty on the inside, crispy and tasty on the outside, party all the way in my mouth.

The chicken has a great flavor. There is a hefty mix of white and dark meat.

I love stuffing my face full of zankou’s chicken shawarma. And I want to slather that garlic sauce all over my body.

The Chicken Tarna wrap is the bomb. Yes, the others are right, the garlic sauce is incredible. The hummus was excellent as well. Reasonably priced food and great value.

Chicken tarna, where have you been all my life?

Their grilled half/whole chicken is perhaps the best or one of the best I have had in the world. I have had this dish in many cities…Berlin, Rome, Paris, Innsbruck…and this place is at least as good and probably better in certain respects…the skin is absolutely crispy and just perfectly flavored.

The tri-tip is to die for!  The chicken is soft and very flavorful.

The most delicious chicken kabob I’ve ever had—cooked so well, tender and moist. 99% of kabob places can’t consistently get their chicken like this. Perfectly flavored and seasoned.

I love the tabule, the hummus and the garlic sauce. I love this place! So fresh, so easy, so friendly!

There’s no other place in the world to go for better garlic sauce.

The Garlic sauce they serve with the chicken is to die for.

I could literally bathe myself in that garlic sauce.
I’d have half a mind to try if I didn’t own a puppy.

Their falafel are excellent – crisp on the outside and moist inside.

The Lule Kabab (ground beef) was moist, tasted of delicious herbs, and cooked perfectly…

Their mutabbal is epic.

The most amazing thing was their garlic sauce… DAMN!! I could dip that on anything and eat it!!

Zankou’s garlic sauce is what makes their dishes shine.

The Tabouleh is one of the best ones I’ve had for a fraction of the price that some restaurants charge.

The Tri Tip Shawarma Pita wrap is truly divine.

  • K G.
  • Carle Place, NY:

This is the greatest chicken I have tasted in long time…simply the best!!!

I don’t normally get cravings. When I do, I get zankou chicken.

The chicken is beyond compare.

The Garlic Sauce is so good that I sometimes skip the chicken and take this stuff intravenously.

Tri-tip Shawerma Plate- The pile of seasoned beef sent my Salivary glands into overdrive.  The smell was equally sensational.

If you REALLY want a treat, the Tri-Tip Plate is heaven.

References:

  • “Quality,” Restaurant and Institutions, by Jaqueline Dulen, February 15, 1999.
  • Restaurant and Institutions.
  • Washington Post.
  • Menu Masters.
  • National Chicken Council.
  • Artichoke to Za/atar, by Greg Malouf and Lucy Malouf, University of California Press, 2008.
  • Armenian Food: Fact, Fiction & Folklore, by Irina Petrosian and David Underwood, Yekir Publishing, Bloombington, Indiana, 2006.
  • The Land of Milk and Honey, by Norton Locke, Ashley Publishing, Florida, 1992.

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