21 Aug 2014
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On Atlantic Avenue, Options Beyond Sahadi's

Though we love the oft-praised Sahadi's, several other Middle Eastern groceries warrant exploring.

, a Middle Eastern mainstay of a grocer on Atlantic Avenue, has gotten its fair share of accolades. Though the store carries an impressive abundance of both Middle Eastern and Western groceries, bulk dry goods and prepared foods, just across the street and even practically next door, other grocery and dry goods stores also offer a notable range of Middle Eastern products without much Western dilution.

Malko Karkanni, the proprietor of . on Atlantic Avenue between Court and Clinton streets, is more interested in business than chit chat. His customers follow suit, and quietly go about their shopping in the somewhat dusty store crammed with curiosities.

By-the-pound olives line a wall with shelves of halvah above them. Hookah hoses hang on a shelf alongside packages of cheese. Bins next to that contain various dried lentils but unless you speak Arabic you might not know what's what.

An orange tabby cat named Kimmy hangs out around this part of the shop, toward the back of the space, and sleeps or watches customers. The store, which has been in business for "thirty or thirty-one years," according to Karkanni, yields more to persevering shoppers. Poke around -- you'll find The Arab Times for a dollar, a large hookah for $65 and a kefiya (traditional checkered scarf) for $6. A medium-sized bottle of olive oil is a steal at $6.50, and Vimto, a non-alcoholic Saudi Arabian fruit cordial, at $4.99, is certainly cheaper than the hard stuff.

Just down the block from Malko Karkanni, a wider range of kefiyas are on display at the back of  but the prices are higher, ranging from $15 - 18. Oriental Pastry has been in business for over fifty years, and is every bit as packed to the rafters as Karkanni's is. Browsing can be addicting, but note the time you go -- owner Gary Moustapha closes up shop for prayer from noon to 1 p.m. during the winter and 1 to 2 p.m. during the summer.

The shop also sells pretty pastel soaps from Damascus ($2.49) in jars, made from olive oil, cucumber or lavender. After initially picking a bright green olive oil soap, Hilda Dakak, an incredibly friendly woman who was manning the store once when Moustapha was absent, directed us to a chunkier, less vividly-colored alternative. It smelled wonderful and Dakak billed it as "more pure." 

Dakak said she occasionally comes down from Queens to help out -- she specified she didn't actually work at the store -- and has known Moustapha, who is originally from Syria, for twenty-seven years.

Sweets are in abundance. A glass case contains halvah ($5.95 per pound) and barrels in front of the register are filled with multi-colored, sugar-coated dried chickpeas ($4.95 per pound), the likes of which we'd never before seen. Other unusual items include honeycombs in plastic boxes for $5.95 to $6.95 and a four-pack of yogurt soda for $5. Like at Malko Karkanni, a quiet cat prowls the premises. This one's name is Tiger.

Another store, has two almost immediately apparent standout features: the rich scent of baking bread and the charm of Gus Matli. 

Matli and his brother Tony inherited the business from their grandfather, who opened Damascus' doors in 1930. 

"That's over eighty-five years experience," said Matli, explaining all the foods they sell, from moussaka to halvah to cookies to sesame bread -- all made in-house. 

"And we're open every day, from seven to seven thirty, like an airline," Matli joked. 

That regimentation carries over to the bright, clean, shop goods, which are stocked together in a somewhat more organized fashion than at Malko Karkanni or Oriental Pastry. Cookies are in one section behind glass, cold prepared foods are in another, Western juices and sodas live by themselves in a case toward the back of the store. 

Flat, round sesame bread is $2, zahter bread is $3.50, individual chicken or spinach potato pies (available with whole wheat or regular crust) are $2. A shopper named Mary, who was on a first name basis with Matli and apologized to him for having been busy and recently absent from the store, ordered whichever of the pies were warm, explaining that she wasn't "so into microwaves." 

The refrigerator cases are packed with moussaka, hummus, baba ganoush, eggplant salad and more, all for about $3.50. Packages of handmade filo dough are $3. Various olives are $4 - $5 a pound. 

"It's amazing," said Sally Khoury, a customer who greeted Matli warmly when she came in to do her shopping. "I've been coming here for a zillion years, and I'm thirty-nine years old," she said.

She then whispered, "I'm really eighty-five." 

Khoury was born on Amity Street but now lives in Bay Ridge, and had brought her neice to Damascus. What's Khoury's favorite item? 

"Everything," she answered.

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