Pop-up restaurant brings Palestinian food to San Antonio
A new Saturday pop-up restaurant gives San Antonians a chance to experience Palestinian food. The grand opening of a place named Saha on the St. Mary's strip took place on Saturday, Feb. 11.
Just west of where Josephine Street merges with St. Mary’s sits an old 1930s era gas station building, now completely re-made as the Little Death Wine Bar. The entire building is covered in colorful, cartoon-like figures, and a silver airstream trailer doubles as a kitchen right next to it.
On a recent brisk morning, seven people quickly set up tables and dug into cardboard boxes for supplies. They were still more than an hour away from opening.
Diner Hoda Cummings explained why she was already there.
“I wanted to get a spot, and I wanted to get one of everything!” she said.
Her tan leather coat helped take the bite out of the breezy upper 50s temperatures. She explained she wasn't just here for lunch.
“I'm Middle Eastern, so my parents are Egyptian, and I grew up eating Middle Eastern food,” Cummings said. “And I was super excited to support someone from a background similar to mine.”
Moureen Kaki started the Saha pop up. It serves a mix of traditional Middle Eastern food like falafel as well as some uniquely Palestinian dishes. She was born and raised in San Antonio but has deep familial roots in Palestine.
“I had the opportunity to live in Palestine when I was eight and again when I was 14 and came back to Texas, and [I'm] proud to say I'm from here — and also proud Palestinian,” she said. “Food has been a huge part of my life for a long time.”
In her family, life always seemed to revolve around food.
“Culturally speaking, we would have large gatherings. Food was always the central thing,” Cummings said. “There was like a sense of community and bonding happening. And the older I got, the more I realize that and the more I fell in love with it.”
The idea for the popup started last August when the owner of Little Death Wine Bar Chad Carey tweeted out that he wanted to a house a pop-up restaurant for successive Saturdays.
“Chad had put out the tweet saying, I'm looking for different, unique takes on food,” Kaki said.
Palestinian food was something different for San Antonio, and after a meeting, Carey gave Kaki the green light for establishing a Saturday pop-up. She had created a menu of her own, while borrowing from those who came before.
“These are the recipes for my grandmother. These are the things that I learned from my aunts and my mom. And it makes me feel connected to home, to family,” she said.
But for Kaki, that connection also comes with pain.
“We were raised as kids to not tell people we were Palestinian, or not talk about it,” Kaki said.
She told a story of an experience at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank. Moureen was 14 and with her mother. The new checkpoint didn’t allow passage either way, and the soldiers wouldn’t explain why.
“After waiting for some time, my mom approached one of the soldiers and said, 'hey, ‘what's the deal? Here's my visa from your government. I have my passport and here's my daughter. She's under 16,’ which by Israeli law at the time — I don't know if this is still true — but ‘since she's under 16, she didn't have to have a visa, so why can't we pass?’” she said.
The soldier refused to answer, and her mother decided she’d had enough and she was going to pass.
“The soldier pointed the gun at my mom and said, ‘if you cross, I'll shoot you.’ And so my mom grabbed the barrel of his gun, put it to her chest, and said, ‘If you want to shoot me, shoot me, but I'm going to exercise my right now going across.’ And she grabbed my hand, a 14 year-old me shaking in my boots. And she just said, ‘don't look back’. And we crossed — and nothing happened, thankfully,” she said.
While many in the U.S. hear mostly about tragedy stemming from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kaki's goal is to bring people together with her food.
“I want people to know that Palestine is beautiful. My goal is to show that Palestinian culture is beautiful,” she said.
That’s a message resonated with Cummings.
“Food is just something that brings people together. You can be on polar ends political spectrum, two very different people, not see eye-to-eye, but everyone has to eat,” Cummings said. “Food is the universal language. It just brings people together.”
In the meantime a steadily-growing crowd lined up. Michael Wildes was excited to get a taste at the grand opening.
“We actually got a little bit of everything. We got the trio, the dips, we got the three of the chicken sandwiches, and I got one of the falafel,” Wildes said. “And I just took my first bite of the chicken sandwich. It is amazing.”
Kathy Hitt had just finished her meal. “We saw in the paper that this thing was popping up. Super excited about trying Palestinian food,” Hitt said. "It's amazing. I'll be back!” she said.
A diner who identified herself as Ranya says it took her back.
“Well, I'm Palestinian, so it tastes very much like the flavors that I grew up with, which is so nice to have in San Antonio because we don't have anything like this here,” she said.
Kaki said the turnout was far better than they expected — 197 diners served.
“I think San Antonio's ready for something different. And I think we what we did on Saturday was authentically Palestinian,” she said.
Saha will be there for 10 more Saturdays through late April. Its Instagram will keep customers updated on the rotating menu.