BEIRUT: From underneath the counter top, Mohammad Khawam pulls out and plates handfuls of pink cabbage from a heavy barrel filled to the brim with pickling brine dyed with beetroot.
It’s the final step in the daily routine to ready his closet-sized sandwich shop in Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq. Khawam is the third generation to lead Abou Adel, which has been a fixture of the now-decrepit neighborhood in central Beirut for almost 60 years. Khawam’s grandfather opened the shop in 1955, when counters specializing in Lebanese street food littered Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods before the area became the epicenter of the country’s 15-year Civil War.
“It’s been in the same place since my grandfather opened it,” says Khawam, a man of few words, just like his father, who prepares garlic spread in the back of the shop. Abou Adel’s no-frills menu is all there in the display cooler: beef, chicken, lamb’s testicles, brain and kafta.
The cooler is missing only kibbeh nayyeh, raw minced meat, which Khawam serves every day but Monday. Beirut’s slaughterhouses take Mondays off, and you can’t serve day-old raw meat, Khawam explains. A menu hangs above the counter – an unnecessary fitting considering everything is the same price: LL5,000.
Khawam’s grandfather, the first Abou Adel, came to Beirut from Syria and settled in Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, opening the shop first as a breakfast joint selling hummus and foul, a fava bean dish. He then expanded to fish and fries in the afternoons. These days, Abou Adel comprises two hole-in-the-wall shops, one for breakfast hummus and foul and the other for grilled meat. The grill shop is usually open for the afternoon and early evening, closing whenever Khawam sells out.
By the ’50s and ’60s Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq was filled with migrants coming to Beirut from rural parts of the country, particularly the south. Khawam’s grandfather and father married women from the southern region of Nabatieh.
The family history is important if only for the effect it has had on the lunch menu. Preparing grilled meat requires no special talent, Khawam says, but his shop also sells frakeh sandwiches and kibbeh nayyeh with a spicy southern twist. Both meat preparations include a spice blend called camouneh, which is unique to southern cooking and consists of bulgur wheat mixed with cumin, hot pepper and a variety of garden herbs. The shop grows its camouneh blend – mint, green onion and marjoram – in a large flowerpot on the street.
Abou Adel sits one street over from the Green Line that bisected warring east and west Beirut in the ’70s and ’80s, and the neighboring buildings are mostly skeletal remains being torn down for development projects. The roofless St. George Church down the street is as dilapidated as some of the county’s Roman ruins and with the same nostalgic grandeur as weeds grow around ornately carved stone columns.
The shop endured the Civil War, but not without tragedy. Proximity to the front line put employees in grave danger, and Khawam’s grandfather Abou Adel was shot and killed by sniper fire.
“The war was very hard because my father and uncles were in the Army, so my grandmother had to take over the shop when my grandfather died,” Khawam said.
Decades later, the view of Downtown from outside the shop has changed as high rises and designer brands have taken over since war razed the cinema and souks that made up the bustling city center. Catering to heavy foot traffic, street food vendors of the Abou Adel variety were once commonplace, but they’ve since been replaced with pricey shisha joints and foreign franchises serving ice cream, coffee and international cuisine.
That’s been a blessing for the restaurant, Khawam explains. Employees Downtown comprise most of its delivery business as it’s one of the closest and cheapest eateries selling basic Lebanese fare.
By noon, the shop is buzzing with a mixture of family and neighbors eating and chatting loudly at a makeshift table inside. The owners’ children sit at a plastic table outside, nibbling on grilled pita stuffed with kafta. With a laugh, a customer pointed at the young boys: “And there’s the littlest Adel.”