Let’s face it: Baton Rouge isn’t exactly a food haven. In terms of authentic, diverse choices of cuisine, it’s less modern major metropolis, more overgrown strip mall.
Sure, in certain categories, it excels. Sports bars? Well, yeah, it’s a football town. Cajun and Creole cuisine? Sure, but certainly that’s the least you’d expect from Louisiana’s capital. Lebanese food? You’re spoiled for choice.
Well, more broadly speaking, Middle Eastern-Mediterranean, but yes, south Baton Rouge is practically bursting with these bustling cafes. They reach from Sadaf’s and Serop’s downtown all the way out to Arzi’s and Zoroona on the outskirts of the city, popping up on seemingly every corner south of Florida Boulevard.
And they all serve, essentially, the same menu. From gyros, a mixed meat dish slow-roasted on a vertical spit and shaved into slices, to falafel, crispy fried chickpea dumplings, to Lebanese iced tea, sweet and tart and flavored with rosewater. It’s a mix with eclectic cultural backgrounds, though to Americans, they all seem to fall under one tzatziki-drenched umbrella.
Take gyros, for example. In practice and technique, it’s essentially the same as the Turkish döner kebab and the Levantine shawarma. But over the course of years of explaining the menu to bewildered Americans, the Greek term came to denote red meat (usually a beef-lamb mixture), while shawarma became synonymous with chicken.
In Baton Rouge, what “Lebanese food” really means is a cross-cultural amalgamation of the city’s diverse Middle Eastern and Mediterranean populations, honed over decades to welcome American tastebuds while retaining a taste of home.
“Lebanese food!” Omer Soysal laughed at the generalization.
“It’s not all from Lebanon!” he said, joking that the Greeks stole gyros from his native Turkey. “But they call it Greek and Lebanese. Hey, that sells.”
Soysal is the vice chair of the board of the Baton Rouge Islamic Center, so he knows better than most just what has brought large groups of Middle Eastern immigrants to Baton Rouge over the years. For him, it was a combination of two things: the promise of a better education and freedom from persecution.
In 2000, when Soysal left Turkey to pursue his doctorate in computer science at LSU, he said he faced significant discrimination for his Muslim faith in his home country. Secularism was on the rise, he said, and the majority of people “didn’t like to see you practicing.” He found it easier to be a devout, practicing Muslim in America, he said, despite a wave of Islamophobia that washed the country after 9/11.
While specifics are different for everyone, he said, most Muslim immigrants who come to the United States are really looking for the same things—peace, stability and opportunity.
“Everyone seeks peaceful living. In their countries, they aren’t peaceful. They may not have jobs or opportunities. But here, it is like this.” He cupped his hands into a dome shape. “Yes, it is a bubble.”
But blindly seeking safety could lead you anywhere. Soysal chose Louisiana for another reason, he said—he had friends and family connections here. That could provide the ultimate clue for why Baton Rouge has established its own small Lebanese (and Turkish, and Saudi, and Syrian, and Afghan) enclave.
Moving to Baton Rouge
Derek Fairchild had a pretty normal Louisiana upbringing. Born into a large Catholic family that moved around between Louisiana and Mississippi, he graduated from Redemptorist High School in Baton Rouge before attending Baton Rouge Community College. Now 23, Fairchild works the counter at Atcha Greek and Lebanese Cafe, a Nicholson Drive spot popular with LSU students, and dabbles in documentary filmmaking.
It wasn’t until college that he really took an interest in the life of his great-grandfather, a Lebanese immigrant, and his Middle Eastern roots. But there wasn’t much in the way of family lore.
“I think we were goat farmers back home, or something,” Fairchild said, laughing.
That side of his family history was passed down in food, he said. His maternal grandmother, Shirley Mansur, daughter of the immigrant ancestor, still serves the family kibbeh, a type of fried stuffed wheat dumpling, tabbouleh, a cold wheat salad, and dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice, meat and spices.
That’s not to say that nothing has changed, though. The dolma recipe Mansur’s father taught her included ground lamb. She’s since switched to pork to suit the palates of her all-American grandchildren, perhaps creating the world’s first Lebanese boudin in the process.
Waheed Ali, 26, is a manager at Almaza All American Food, another Lebanese cafe just on the other side of LSU, on East Boyd Drive. Like Fairchild, Ali grew up in Baton Rouge, has roots in the Middle East and now spends workdays serving gyros and shawarma to hungry LSU students.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Ali left Afghanistan, his country of birth, with his mother and six siblings in 1998, a refugee from Taliban religious and ethnic hatred. His father had just been killed in sectarian attacks.
After four years in Pakistan, his family flew into JFK International Airport in New York City and were resettled in Baton Rouge. The United Nations Refugee Agency helped pay their rent, send the kids to school and set them up on food stamps, but Ali’s mother still had to work to support seven children. She got a job at a car wash, then as a custodian at Our Lady of the Lake hospital.
Ali was placed at Kenilworth Middle School, which held the city’s English as a Second Language program, and there found himself within a community of refugees.
“They were from Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia, Georgia, Congo, Sudan,” he said, counting on his fingers.
He didn’t even share a language with most of them—he spoke Farsi, while the other Middle Eastern children spoke Arabic—but learned English quickly and made friends. He still plays soccer with some of them on Sundays.
Joining the restaurant business was just a way to help out his mom and begin to repay her. He knew some of the food, and quickly learned the rest of the American-Lebanese canon. Ali’s mother is remarried and “comfortable” now, he said.
“No, she doesn’t work anymore,” Ali said with a smile. “She earned that.”
At the Restaurant
A Friday afternoon in Atcha Cafe is hazy, warm and fragrant. At the counter, Lebanese-French-American Derek Fairchild, working for the restaurant’s Pakistani owner, serves Greek-Turkish-Lebanese gyros, first to LSU’s American and international student and faculty body, then, when the mosque down the street lets out, to a crowd of Turks, Afghans, Saudis and any others of the Middle Eastern diaspora. They talk news and politics, some in Arabic, but mostly in English.
And they eat. Gyros and shawarma and kibbeh and falafel and dolma. None of them, not the students or the professors or the worshippers, seem to care much what came from where or who invented what. They’re here now, and the food is in front of them.
Photo by Kalynn Barnum.