Tucked into the heart of the Pearl District, just east of Peoria on 6th Street, sits a restaurant that is still an undiscovered secret in town. The patio seating and the shaded windows may make you think it’s a small coffee shop or some nondescript extension of the nearby Phoenix cafe. But no, it’s a Lebanese restaurant serving up authentic flavor and natural ingredients that will make your mouth water — Papa Ganouj. The menu features a variety of classics you’d expect to find at a Lebanese place — hummus, baba ganoush, lentil soup, chicken tawook, cabbage rolls and falafel, to name a few, but there are also selections you may not be familiar with, all worth test-sampling like manoosh, a simple pizza seasoned with za’atar.
Owner and chef of Papa Ganouj, Khaled Rahhal (known as ‘K’ to his staff and regular customers), refuses to call himself a chef or even a creative, but he is passionate about cooking. Creatively using fresh herbs and spices grown by hand, as well as ingredients from local farms, he makes some of the tastiest Mediterranean dishes in Tulsa. And he’s been doing it for almost 50 years.
“I started cooking when I came to Tulsa as a student in the 1970s,” he says, resting at one of the restaurant’s tables after the lunch rush. “I never even fried an egg at home. I had three beautiful sisters, one great saint of a mother. So, I never had to make a sandwich for myself.”
That changed when he left home to attend school. “In college, living alone in an apartment, or with friends, it started to come to me, my mother’s motions in the kitchen that I observed when I played hooky from school,” K says.
It was then, as he followed in his mother’s footsteps and connected to others through food, that he realized how much cooking meant to him.
“I have always liked to entertain,” he says. “I realized how simple it is, combining and creating from the heart. Cooking is simple when you are looking to please someone else with food.”
K says he learned to master the culinary skills that now please his customers as he worked and lived his life in the years after he graduated college. “I waited tables, here, New York, Chicago,” he explains. “Mostly, I was raising my family of four children. I wanted them to eat everything that we ate on Sundays [when I was a child].”
After college, civil war in Lebanon prevented him from going back until it ended. Those trips have reminded him of how very proud he is of his heritage, just as he is happy to be an American citizen.
“In Lebanon there are 3 million living there, and about 23 million Lebanese living in every country on Earth. And one thing in common among all of them, I will assure you … Lebanese are the best immigrants. It is traditional for us to educate our families to be great citizens,” he says.
For K, having a successful real estate career, which includes owning the building where Papa Ganouj is housed, as well as being a restaurateur, has been an American dream. A dream come true, he says, because of the many people who love the food at Papa Ganouj.
But K says Papa Ganouj is more than just great tasting baba ghanoush, falafel, kibbeh and all the other popular Mediterranean specialties.
“It is healthy food, and the flavor has an effort in it,” he explains. “Mediterranean cuisine is becoming more popular. It has a sort of breath in it. All the cinnamon and cumin, mild and sweet spices, all the universal kabob spices and garlic. It is all very healthy food.”
So many restaurants in Tulsa have come and gone. It’s the nature of the business. K says that longevity rests on a passionate crew. He says his staff aims to fill the customer’s eyes first, and then their stomachs, by taking pride in the presentation of every meal.
“I have beautiful people working for me right now and they are like family to me,” he says. “Cooking has to be from the heart and the soul. How you can make something good with no measurements, with no written recipes? It is hard. Sure, I can teach you an item or two, with time, but it can be hard to really get into unless you do it from your heart and your mind. It is simple then. Somehow, I assure you, the art of cooking can transfer when there is enough love.”
As a young man, K would walk from the university to the west side of Tulsa and back. The Pearl District buildings were run down. He looked at the building he now owns and thought how he would like to buy it. So, after college he went into real estate.
“I ended up buying this building from a kind old lady,” he says. “I had dreams. I am really just a dreamer. That’s it. Cooking is a dream for me too, in many ways.”
K sees the creative mind as one of the things real estate and the restaurant business have in common. “If I’m ever recognized for a little creativity, I am honored. You don’t know if you’ve been creative or not; only you can see it in the eyes of other people,” he says. “Take, for example, you write a song. You might love it, and I’m sure you do. But whenever you are recognized or not, you have to play it in front of people and watch their response. I wish I had more of that creativity.”
But don’t let K fool you. He has plenty of creativity, with all the amazing Mediterranean dishes he serves at Papa Ganouj. Visit him for lunch or for a quiet dinner and see his culinary expertise and love for yourself next time you’re in the Pearl District. You’ll be glad you did.
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