Austin Gourmet Market
M-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun Noon-6pm New rule of thumb: If you want to learn about ethnic cuisine, find a small lunch counter, preferably in the back of a family-run store. Most times, it'll be the closest you can get to somebody's home kitchen without being arrested for trespassing. Roadside barbecue shacks fit into this category, as do most roving breakfast taco operations. If you can see the folks make the stuff, you've hit the mother lode.
With five tables between the front window and olive oil aisle, the Austin Gourmet Market serves up Lebanese variations on Mediterranean specialties prepared as god intended -- from twin hot plates in the back. The menu leans toward dishes traditionally associated with Greek cooking (heavy on the lamb) and an emphasis on quicker foods (sandwiches, filled pies) and meatless options (falafel, four salads, Middle Eastern dips). Overall, the spicing tends to be more subtle than one might expect, but the delicate spices work well to enhance the different textures of the dishes. The lamb shawrma, for example, comes dressed with a velvety tahini sauce that calls attention to the meat's spicing rather than itself. The desserts -- baklava, nut rolls, and other experiments in honey, pistachios, and phyllo -- merit high praise for texture, taste, and incredible addiction potential.
While you're waiting for your order, do some casual shopping among their widely varied import stock. Next time you need Lebanese orange blossom jam, Hungarian plum butter, or sweet Greek pygmy eggplant preserves, you'll know where to go. --Paul M. Johnson