The visit to the Manakish restaurant triggered memories of my childhood. “Za-a-a-tar” my father would stretch out the word and wait for me to repeat it. “It’s good for you. It makes you smart”, he would say before offering me a flatbread covered in the “special zaatar sauce” (a mix of ground spices with olive oil) for breakfast while he was drinking sage tea.
It was the Manakish with Zaatar and Whipped Labneh displayed on the menu at the “Manakish Oven” restaurant that prompted this memory. One can say that Manakish is a type of Mediterranean or Arabic pizza. The variety of toppings for the Manakish flatbreads is rich and fun: chicken shawarma, tri-tip, lamb, za’atar, cheese, hummus, vegetables, herbs and pickles. It can be eaten for all three meals of the day. Manakish comes from the Arabic word “to sculpt”; after the dough is rolled, it is “sculpted” or hand-pressed to create dips for the toppings and later baked in a Marsal brick oven for less than 4 minutes.
Adam Taleb and Feras (Fred) Gaban were the first people to introduce the Manakish culture to the small town of Walnut Creek by opening the Manakish Oven and Grill in 2019. While the restaurant is located on a busy intersection of two major streets, it has an inviting and cheerful look. A variety of shades of Moroccan blue on the walls, vibrant yellow chairs, large windows and playful fanous (arabic decorative lamps) create the feeling of a fairy tale. The menu has 12 different Manakishes, 4 types of pastries (boreks and fatayers), lentil soup and some typical medditerranean starters. Manakish Oven also offers 6 types of sweets and traditional Middle Eastern drinks like sage tea.
When we came to Manakish, it was lunch-time, but I was very hungry and therefore ordered Tri-Tip Shawarma Makanish with hummus, shredded tri tip, pickles and tahini sauce. We also ordered spinach and feta fatayer (small pie) and lentil soup. As we waited for the order, I started my conversation with Fred.
Finding yourself in a new country is no easy task, especially if you’re planning on building your future there. Fred moved to the United States from the United Arab Emirates when he was 16 years old, in hopes of studying and settling abroad. Although he came to America by himself, he was able to find a living with his relatives that migrated years before. Finishing high school early, he enrolled at Diablo Valley College at 17, and later transferred to San Francisco State to finish his business management major. From there on out, he was on his own, trying to figure out what he wanted to pursue as he entered the real world. He tried out several jobs with a few corporations, attempting to find a path that would satisfy him. The cubicles that he sat in day by day did not appease him, so he turned to working as an entrepreneur with his friend that he made at the community college.
Adam was also a Palestinian that immigrated to America in search of fulfilling his dreams. Together with Fred, they began by starting businesses that involved importing and exporting. Shortly after, the two decided that they wanted to spread their love for cooking and creativity, landing them in the restaurant business.
Most of Fred’s family is involved in the restaurant world. Some of his family have started a small mediterranean restaurant in Louisiana. Inspired by his family’s love at work, Fred decided to spread his love for Mediterranean food in Walnut Creek. He realized that the Mediterranean options currently available in the Bay Area did not reflect the cuisine, the aromas, textures and flavors he experienced in his home country. With that, he decided to open the Manakish Oven where the real food created from his mothers and grandmothers recipes would be served.
“The beauty of the meal is in the gathering,” explained Fred. Arabic food, especially at his restaurant, is very hard to make because of the big batches that are required. “You can’t cook this food just for one order,” remarked Fred, “We always have to prepare in large amounts, and we make the food in a way to make it fresh.”
Fred puts his heart into every item on the menu but the one that has a special place in this heart is “zaatar”. Just like me, it reminds him of his Palestinian background. “It took me a very long time to find good za’atar. There’s just no place else like the Middle East that has the best za’atar,” he says with a very warm smile.