The story of Beirut Restaurant and Deli is an immigrant story.
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was gripped in the terror of a civil war. Tens of thousands of people died. About a million people fled their homeland.
Beirut Restaurant founder Joseph Khoury was one of them.
His brother had already been kidnapped and murdered, and he heard by word of mouth that he would be next. He gathered his family and fled to America. He landed in West St. Paul, where a relatively sizable Lebanese population had begun to settle.
“He came here with $50 in his pocket, built the business from nothing,” says Joseph’s son, John Khoury. “He opened it because he had an opportunity to do it.”
And now, John has an opportunity to do it, so he does it, too.
The business, St. Paul’s 33-year-old Lebanese dining institution Beirut, is now under John’s control. He works the stoves while his wife, Madelaine, runs the front of house.
While Joseph is still in the building every day (the hummus and the falafel are his babies), he’s been happy to pass the legacy on to the next generation, even if they take a different approach than his own.
“The more our kids succeed, the more it reflects on us,” John says of his father’s philosophy. He’s still in his chef’s coat after a busy lunch rush and preparing for another busy Friday night dinner.
When Joseph opened it in 1984, Port of Beirut (as it was called then) was a simple family restaurant, mostly American with a little Lebanese at the fringes. “My dad remembers prepping up Lebanese food and having it sit for two or three days and then having to throw it out,” says John.
The original menu, now framed in the vestibule, is more reminiscent of a Mr. Steak (indeed, Port of Beirut was in competition with that very chain on Robert Street) and is filled with things like deep-fried fish sandwiches topped with cheese, and chopped steak served with baked potatoes.
The “Middle Eastern Sandwiches” section included what are now the usual suspects: gyros, falafel, and kabobs. “The Pride of Lebanon,” the only item that reads like it’s being marketed, was baked kibbee (a traditional dish made of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef) served with garlic sauce. It didn’t sell.
“Nobody knew what kibbee was,” says John.
Today, Beirut sells dozens of pounds of kibbee weekly, baked and raw. Raw is the universally agreed-upon standard for the dish if you’re dining in the traditional Lebanese style. At Beirut, it’s a simple grind of freshest-ever beef, salt, pepper, onion, and dry basil. “If you like steak tartare, you’ll love it,” says John.
The Khourys use no written recipes — “Our tongues are our recipes,” says John — so one or the other of the Khoury men must attend to the kitchen at all times. John and Madelaine are planning a trip to introduce their three boys to Lebanon this year, and he’s considering shuttering the restaurant during that time rather than leave it in the hands of anyone else.
“I don’t know too many restaurants anymore where the owners are this involved in the cooking,” he says. Cooking and running all aspects of the business is all-encompassing. “When I hear people say they’ve put in a 50-hour work week, I’m like, ‘It’s Wednesday and I’ve put in 50 hours already.’”
But doing it the no-cutting-corners way, the eyes-on-everything way his father taught him is the one and only way for John and for Beirut. You can taste it.
Obviously, the Minnesota palate has come a long way since the days when a gyro sandwich seemed mysterious. You can buy hummus at the gas station. But erase all preconceived notions you have about hummus before crossing the threshold at Beirut. The typical American home recipe would have you opening cans of chickpeas. The Khourys would rather go without hummus for the rest of their lives.
“We still, to this day, soak our chickpeas for 24 hours, boil them for two hours, purée them, let them cool off overnight, and then add the rest to make it hummus,” says John. “The longer it takes to prepare something, the better it’s going to taste.”
This is a labor-of-love hummus, a silken delicacy to revere hummus. A high point of your day hummus.
The shawarma (not to be confused with gyro) is marinated in-house with 17 different spices, then hand-spindled on a vertical rotisserie with cuts of sirloin on top of one another until it looks like a Christmas tree made of meat. It cooks slowly this way, sliced to order for platters or served sandwich-style, tucked into delicate pita with rich sesame tahini. If you are a shawarma fan, or even a fan of the standard gyro (usually some blend of lamb and beef, formed into a loaf before being roasted on the spit), the Beirut sandwich will change your life.
But if you do nothing else at Beirut, order the monumental mezza platter for two, a $50 color wheel of just about everything the restaurant has to offer, served in smaller portions for sharing. It’s the way a Lebanese family would traditionally eat at a gathering, with plates of food coming and going, going and coming. You’ll get pretty little clay pots of that hummus and tabouli with far more chopped parsley than cracked wheat, a sign of the real deal because it’s an ordeal to chop all of that parsley. Then there’s glossy and heavily smoked eggplant baba ganouj, falafel, kibbee (choose baked or raw), stuffed grape leaves, fried cauliflower cloaked in tahini and garlic, shawarma, a kefir cheese spread called labneh bathing in olive oil and mint, your choice of kabob, and more little sharing pots of olives and cheese.
John says you’d be crazy to dine here any other way. I concur.
When your kabobs arrive, take note of the white swipe of garlic sauce, an addiction for its many devotees (it and a few other items are also available at Beirut’s small grab-and-go deli). The fire of raw garlic gets tamed by good olive oil and emulsification, making a fluffy, badass condiment, like mayo with a passport. It’s the one menu item that’s survived all 33 years, and people drive from miles around to get it. It’s as sure a sign as any that you’re somewhere exceptional.
Now that the legacy of his dad’s American opportunity is in his hands, John worries for the next generation: “People just want to take pictures now and drink big pink drinks.” There is nothing Instagrammable at Beirut, and though they lay claim to the only full bar on Robert Street, they serve cocktails like they serve their food: classic, strong, and high-quality.
The place is due for a remodel, John says, though I’m partial to the low ceiling, butcher-papered tables, and the little wooden stage that once hosted bellydancers. But change is inevitable, and necessary.
It’s too soon to know whether Joseph’s three grandsons, who now have the opportunity to do what they choose with their lives, will plunge their hands into the kibbee and make the somewhat romantic choice of upholding the family legacy.
So go over there now. Get the kibbee while the kibbee getting is good.
Beirut Restaurant and Deli
1385 Robert St., West St. Paul