Where to Find Arabic Breakfast in Austin
Za'atar, labneh, and fatteh are the stars of the spread, but it's really about the quality time together
Oula Nabulsi meticulously sets out a series of small, colorful bowls she brought from the United Arab Emirates on her breakfast table. "When many Americans think of Arabic food, shawarma and falafel come to mind," says the real estate investor, Arabic food Instagram content creator, and mom of three. "They don't know much about Arabic breakfast, so it is like a hidden treasure they have yet to discover."
Arabic breakfast is what brings Nabulsi's family together on the weekends for the longest meal of the week, she explains. "Arabic breakfast is so special because it is a little bit of everything, shared and eaten slowly with consideration for everyone at the table."
Traditionally, Arabic breakfast is served as a variety of dishes in small shared plates. Nabulsi likens the style of the meal to that of tapas or a charcuterie board, as there are a variety of offerings to be shared and enjoyed as small bites. Her favorite savory Arabic breakfast essential items are za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend usually made of dried herbs such as thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds) and olive oil, labneh (a strained yogurt), eggs, green olives, pickled vegetables, cheeses, fava beans, fresh cucumber, and tomato. Some items, like falafel, are considered anytime foods that have a place on both the breakfast and dinner table. Though most items tend to be savory, Nabulsi says it is customary to end the meal on a sweet bite of something like halawa (a tahini-and-honey dip) or jam. Hot tea is essential with the meal and breakfast is finished with a small demitasse of Turkish coffee.
When eaten later in the day as more of a brunch, Nabulsi says it is common to serve heavier hot items like fatteh (layered baked pita bread, chickpeas, and tahini sauce topped with fried pine nuts), kibbeh (a ground-lamb-and-bulgar-wheat meatball), and fried vegetables such as cauliflower, potatoes, or eggplant. In some regions, breakfast includes manakeesh, a flatbread topped with za'atar, cheese, or finely ground beef.
Nabulsi enjoys making elaborate and nostalgic Arabic breakfasts when she is with her family, but for those without an Arab mom at home, here are three spots around town with some Arabic breakfast offerings, including one with a full Arabic breakfast menu coming soon.
The first is Mazaj Cafe in North Austin. This restaurant was opened in 2021 by chef Ahmed "Eddie" Jarrah, who came to Austin from Houston, where he previously owned a larger incarnation of Mazaj Cafe with his brothers. Jarrah said he opened his cafe and hookah lounge concept in Austin because he felt it was something different than everything else currently available. Jarrah studied and worked in the hospitality and restaurant industry for decades and wanted to create a place that would bring people happiness and offer the Levantine Arabic cuisine he loves to make. "I have worked in the best hotels and in the best places. I make the best food and I want people to have a relaxed place to enjoy it."
Though traditional small-plated Arabic breakfast setups can be arranged for larger groups, there are popular breakfast dishes on the menu that can be ordered individually during weekend brunch hours from noon to 3pm. Jarrah recommends the manakeesh flatbreads topped with either spiced ground beef, his special in-house blend of za'atar, or a sauce of pepper, bulgar, and pomegranate called "muhammara."
A fava bean dish consisting of fava beans, garlic, and lemon topped with tomatoes, parsley, and olive oil is one of the more common breakfast items. It is available at Mazaj with or without tahini yogurt and is eaten with pita bread, just as hummus or baba ghanoush.
Fatteh and shakshuka are popular breakfast menu items. Prepared differently across the Middle East, shakshuka can include a fried egg on top of a tomato sauce, but Mazaj's version is closer to scrambled eggs mixed with diced tomatoes. Mazaj offers hot tea by the glass or by the pot, with or without mint.
The second place to get Arabic breakfast in the area is Pita Shack, a small and unassuming spot in a strip mall in Pflugerville. While they took breakfast off the menu because it was still such an unknown for most of their customers, it is still available to customers in the know. Traditional Arabic breakfast setups for larger groups can be arranged; otherwise there are just breakfast items that can be ordered individually, including a uniquely Iraqi omelette dish of soft-cooked eggs on top of ground beef, parsley, tomatoes, and onions called "makhlama."
Civil engineer-turned-restaurateur Malik Al Hasani would love to share Arabic breakfast with his customers. Prior to owning his own restaurant, Al Hasani was always the chef among his group of friends. During graduate school he moved out on his own and learned to cook out of necessity. Once he married, his wife encouraged his culinary enthusiasm. When the opportunity to buy Pita Shack presented itself, Al Hasani jumped at the chance to share his love for Arabic food.
He took over Pita Shack in 2021 from the original owner, who was moving out of Texas. As a first-time restaurant owner, Al Hasani had to quickly learn that managing a successful business involves much more than making delicious and consistent food. Al Hasani says of owning Pita Shack, "I most enjoy how happy people are when they eat well."
The breakfast items Al Hasani recommends customers try for Arabic breakfast are the manakeesh za'atar or cheese flatbreads, served on a thin pizza crust. Labneh, olives, Akawi cheese, and makhlama are all also available to round out Pita Shack's breakfast offerings. Though not traditionally a breakfast item in Iraq, hummus is a breakfast staple throughout the Levantine region. Al Hasani insists Pita Shack has perfected their recipe after many iterations.
The third place to offer Arabic breakfast items is Rumaan Mediterranean Cuisine. Located at the entrance to Lakeline Mall, it serves classic Levantine Arabic dishes and a full-service juice bar with outdoor patio and indoor dining. Though currently Rumaan only offers a few Arabic breakfast items off the menu, it has been hosting Arabic brunches for groups, made by special order, since it opened in February 2022. Owner Allam Steiteh says they have plans to launch a full weekend Arabic breakfast menu this fall, which will include a breakfast mezze with small sampling portions of traditional Arabic breakfast items. Steiteh plans the menu to include all traditional Palestinian and Jordanian breakfast foods, including two types of chickpea fatteh, manakeesh flatbreads, grilled halloumi cheese, eggs, and deep-fried cauliflower. Turkish coffee and hot tea will also be served.
Though Arabic breakfast is still somewhat of a niche offering in Austin, Jarrah, Al Hasani, and Steiteh all see the potential for the demand to grow as mainstream familiarity with the dishes increases. "I like to encourage people to try different foods they haven't tried before," says Al Hasani. "If someone always has shawarma and falafel, I encourage them to try kebab. They will wish they had tried it sooner. It's the same for breakfast."
Jarrah concurs: "I think once people try more types of Arabic food, more fresh Arabic foods, the more things they will want to try."
Nabulsi says most weekdays her kids will have cereal or a typical quick meal in the morning, but when the weekend comes around and her family gathers together, it is time for a traditional spread. She hopes that more people will experience the delicious, and often healthy, Arabic breakfast recipes. "Arabic breakfast has food that we all share slowly instead of focusing on our own plates. It gives us a chance to be together, enjoy each other, and take our time to enjoy good food."
Mazaj Cafe13376 Research #100
Pita Shack616 FM 685 Ste. A-108, Pflugerville
Rumaan Mediterranean Cuisine11200 Lakeline Mall Dr. Ste. F-18, Cedar Park