Tucked among boutiques, coffee shops and an art gallery in downtown Sioux Falls’ 8th & Railroad Center sits a taste of the Middle East. The place? – Sanaa’s Gourmet – a Syrian restaurant featuring vegetarian and gluten free cuisine locally owned by Sanaa Abourezk.
Hailing from Damascus, Syria, Abourezk moved to the states for good after meeting her husband, former South Dakota senator James Abourezk, while they were both living in Washington. But it was the dearth of traditional ethnic eateries in Sioux Falls that compelled the practicing nutritionist to quit her day job and open Sanaa’s 11 years ago.
Manager Lori Blechinger has been working with Abourezk for two years now, crediting her continued dedication, and the restaurant’s popularity, to the owner’s exemplary food philosophy.
“I chose to work here because I agree with Sanaa’s philosophy on food,” Blechinger said. “Everything we make is fresh and from scratch – everyday. Everything from sauces and vinaigrettes to pitas and meat is made by hand. The food is extremely clean and healthy.”
It’s a noteworthy concept for a town that thrives on chain establishments, but one that seems to resonate with local restaurant-goers. The restaurant’s atmosphere itself is a far cry from any Olive Garden or Five Guys. Painted a striking shade of mustard yellow and adorned with rainbow-hued tapestries and Middle Eastern artwork, the interior radiates life. It’s like being at a bazaar – it’s loud, it’s exciting, it’s home.
That environment is one of Blechinger’s favorite parts about working at Sanaa’s.
“It’s just such an exciting and unique place,” she said. “It’s lively, but it’s also soothing in a way. We get so many customers from different cultures and cities, you learn something new everyday.”
On weekdays the restaurant serves lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering a 10-course dinner buffet ($15.95 per person) Friday and Saturday evening from 5 p.m. to 8.
All of Sanaa’s dishes are prepared under the classically trained eye of Abourezk herself, who attended both cooking school in Florence, Italy and the Cordon Bleu Baking School in Paris, France after graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree in agricultural engineering and a master’s in nutrition. Suffice it so say, Abourezk knows her stuff. That education translates to her food flawlessly.
The Chicken Shish Twook, featured as one of two meats in Saturday’s dinner buffet, was cooked to perfection – succulent and tangy alongside Sanaa’s signature orange sauce. But the Beef Kufta held it’s own. Rolled into a meatball, the ground beef sang with hints of parsley, onion and spices in a fresh tomato sauce.
The ideal complement to all that meaty richness was the Saffron Rice Pilaf and Cabbage and Radish Salad. Drizzled with a minimalist mixture of ginger lemon and olive oil, Abourezk let the chopped red and green cabbage speak for itself, adding a refreshing note to a hearty meal. While the Saffron Rice Pilaf served as a palette cleanser of sorts, highlighting the other strong flavors well, it also packed enough zesty punch to shine on its own.
For Sanaa’s customer Andrea Conover, the buffet-style dinner proved to be the ideal dining experience for her first trip to Sanaa’s.
“I felt like the buffet really let me get a taste of what authentic Middle Eastern food is like,” she said. “Instead of going and just ordering one dish, I got to try a lot of new things – food I probably wouldn’t order off the menu. Sanaa’s is casual, but it’s also inviting. I felt like I was part of a family there, rather than just a customer. And I loved that we got to talk to Sanaa in person.”
Sanaa, both the restaurant and the individual, don’t look to be slowing down any time soon. Abourezk recently appeared on the Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay, facing off against the world-famous chef and restaurateur to see whose Eggplant Mosakaa reigned supreme. Although Abourezk didn’t come away with the big prize, her restaurant did gain some notoriety, both locally and nationally.
“There’s been a strong interest in Sanaa’s since the show aired,” Blechinger said. “It’s brought in huge amounts of new customers, but our regulars are also here chatting with Sanaa about the show and meeting Bobby Flay. It’s exciting to see how happy they are for her and the restaurant.”
It’s a sentiment that makes Sanaa’s Gourmet more than just a Middle Eastern restaurant, instead it’s a community – one built around a mutual love of authentic cuisine and bringing a taste of the unique to downtown Sioux Falls.