A small slice of the biggest little city is thriving halfway around the world. El Cartel, a taco shop in Lebanon, is making a name for itself in the local food scene thanks to the two American owners who hail from Reno, Nev.
“There are Prada shops, and people going by in organized running groups, not just bombed out buildings and ISIS flags — they didn’t say that on the news,” said Anthony Aranda, 34, looking out on the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea during a recent visit to Beirut. Aranda, a University of Nevada, Reno graduate, moved to Lebanon with friend and business partner Justin Fong in March. The two longtime Reno residents created and now run El Cartel in the seaside town of Byblos, 34 kilometers north of Beirut.
“The only thing I knew about Lebanon was that there was some sort of war going on, that it was dangerous to go there,” said Aranda, who is originally from the Philippines. “My family and friends thought I was crazy to even think about coming here. [They thought] it was dangerous for my life. But, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen because of Justin. He believed that there was something here, and I believed that he wasn’t going to put me in danger. So far, it’s been all right.”
Fong, 29, originally from Sacramento, California, chose Lebanon after a couple of visits to the area. Fong studied Middle Eastern politics at UNR, graduating with a degree in international affairs. He chose to visit the area to find a deeper understanding and connection with the region.
The road to Lebanon
“I knew what I was reading in books was not the whole truth,” said Fong. “I knew it couldn’t be the absolute, so I came.”
After graduation in 2009, Fong flew to Istanbul. Traveling through Turkey, he found himself in Antakya, a town on the Syrian border.
“When I got there, all the hotels were booked out for the night,” Justin recalled. “I figured I would be sleeping on the streets, but this hotel manager gave me his room, like his private residence inside the hotel. I slept there, and the next morning I crossed the Syrian border. They held my passport at the border for 10 hours.”
After crossing into Syria, Fong hitched a ride with three Mexican women driving to Aleppo. Finding that ride was just the beginning of a journey through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Fong recalls the “coolest sunset in Palmyra,” a territory now held by ISIS, hitching a ride with a mini bus smuggling cigarettes and gasoline into Jordan, and hitting rock bottom in Beirut.
“I had a mental breakdown in Beirut,” he said. “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was too much culture shock. I had to lock myself in my room and turn the air conditioner down to like 16 [degrees Celsius]. I huddled in a ball in the corner and slept for a whole day. It was too much.”
He was able to move past his breakdown in Beirut to travel back through Jordan, where he saw the Red Sea and smoked weed with a Bedouin tribe in the desert before finally traveling back to Istanbul and then home to Reno. After returning to Northern Nevada, Fong was changed.
“I’ve always believed in living outside your comfort zone, living in that muddled gray area, because the longer you sit there, you get stronger,” he said. “But, sitting in that gray area for so long gets fucking hard. It will break you. I did that [first] trip by myself. I came home thinking the world was a very different place.”
In the subsequent six years, Fong would live in Reno, Bangladesh and Algeria, and travel through several other countries before the move to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Aranda, after graduating with a degree in international affairs, took a teaching job in the southern town of Masan in South Korea. Falling in love with education, he began an online master’s program in TESOL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, from Anaheim University.
Spending nearly a half-decade in South Korea, Aranda was in search of a new adventure.
“I was ready to go,” said Aranda. “I found my spot in Korea. I was comfortable and had my routine, but I was ready to experience something different.”
Life in the ‘Red Zone’
Lebanon experienced a brutal civil war between religious and regional parties from 1975 to 1990, ending with over 120,000 dead and, according to the CIA, over 2 million displaced within the country.
A 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel fought in southern Lebanon in 2006 reignited violence and sectarian divisions yet again.
After the cease-fire, Lebanon seemed to stabilize, reinvigorating a crumbling tourism market. The peace only lasted until conflicts emerged between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in Tripoli and Beirut in 2011, provoking fears that the neighboring Syrian conflict was spilling into the country.
Today, Lebanon is home to over 1.8 million Syrian refugees, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In a country of 4.3 million, the massive influx of Syrians fleeing violence has strained the country’s resources and caused many experts to debate the inevitability of more conflict within the country.
The Lebanese people have learned that life can just as easily be taken away as it is given.
“In Lebanon, we have gone through so much,” reflects Christophe Khoury during a trip to his family village of Jaj in the Lebanese mountains. Khoury is a friend to Fong and Aranda, and a customer at El Cartel. “It isn’t always about living, it’s about surviving. That’s just the way it is here.”
His is not an uncommon sentiment.
The U.S. State Department currently characterizes Lebanon as a danger zone. The department strongly urges all U.S. residents to avoid travel to the country citing recent conflict and the uncertainty of violence. Known terrorist organizations, including ISIS, Hezbollah, and the al-Nusrah Front, or ANF, are reported to operate within the borders.
The beginnings of a taco shop
The taco shop, El Cartel, was Fong’s brainchild. After years of working in restaurants, he dreamed about owning a place of his own. Shopping around Reno and Sacramento for the perfect restaurant location and concept, Fong became disenchanted with increasing rent prices and jumping through the hoops of starting a restaurant stateside.
Fong found himself back in Lebanon in fall 2014, visiting friends at the Lebanese American University in Byblos. He met a Syrian refugee, Hassan, who owned and operated a market next to a vacant restaurant. After multiple conversations with Hassan, Fong returned to Reno to wrap up his life and start his own business in Lebanon.
Soon after his return to the Silver State, he began recruiting people to partner with him in Byblos. He found a few interested friends and many people who thought he was crazy, but only one person who actually agreed to pack up, board a plane bound for Lebanon, and set up shop.
“He asked me if I wanted to start a taco shop, and I said, ’Yes,’ because I wanted to see something new and because I had never been to the Middle East,” said Aranda. “I wanted to have an adventure, collect stories. He caught me at a good time. I just finished my contract in Korea and said, ’Sure, why not?’ Now, I’m sitting here in Lebanon.”
The two friends renovated the former restaurant, which sits near the Lebanese American University campus, purchased new restaurant equipment, painted the walls a shocking lime green and red (a miscommunication with the Egyptian painter hired for the job), and developed a Mexican menu in under three weeks.
“Where else can you start a restaurant and get it running in less than a month, all for under $10,000?” Fong said with a chuckle. “Only in Lebanon.” He shakes his head. “Only in Lebanon.”
The small restaurant sits sandwiched between a convenience store and a vacant retail space. The two men used materials from their surroundings and built a partition between the kitchen and dining space with cinder blocks poured and shaped in a quarry just a stone’s throw from the shop.
The green and red walls are adorned with signatures and inspirational quotes from patrons and friends. Spare markers to sign the walls sit below the menu, which features tacos, tortas, quesadillas and churros.
There isn’t a space in the shop that hasn’t been marked by the adoring fan-base Fong and Aranda are building, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Customers trickle in throughout the day and are always greeted like dear friends. The owners exude a laid-back, friendly vibe, often chatting with patrons as they prepare tacos in the open kitchen.
El Cartel serves the flavors of Mexico and the friendliness of Reno to the residents of Byblos, and they love it. Fong does all the grocery shopping by taxi every few days, and the two men prep, cook, clean, and keep the shop humming from noon to around midnight, six days a week.
The hard work and long days have paid off. El Cartel is now in talks with private investors to expand business into the capital city. Fong wasn’t able to elaborate on the expansion plans yet, but will say the Beirut location will feature an expanded menu and cocktail offerings.
‘Are you crazy?’
Why are you here? Are you crazy?
Fong and Aranda swear not a day goes by without these two questions. Depending on their mood, the inquisition is greeted with a tall tale of murder and exile to a simple shrug, followed by, “Sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Any answer the men give doesn’t begin to illustrate the deep passion and commitment the two have for learning and growing through travel. Spending a collective two decades exploring the world, Aranda and Fong quickly become passionate about the deeper reasons why they are in a country many view as too unsafe to visit.
“I think I do it because at the end of my days, or however you want to say it, I want to be able to give back something to the people in my life,” said Fong. “I want to show them that [they] can do this. Not too many people do, but I’m the living proof that you can.”
The two friends share a philosophy on life that pushes them to learn through adversity, to develop understanding through interactions with people, and to grow by sharing their knowledge and insights with the people they meet along the way.
Aranda and Fong have each worked extensively with youth to foster deeper international connections in programs funded by the U.S. State Department and non-profit organizations. Though neither is currently working in an education program, El Cartel has become a proxy classroom for international cooperation.
It is not uncommon to see a table of Lebanese American University students hailing from all over the world, sharing a Mexican meal cooked by two Asian Americans in the Middle East.
This is Lebanon
Starting up the business, while relatively quick, was far from easy. Dealing with cultural differences, language barriers, and curious neighbors, Fong and Aranda have been pushed to the breaking point multiple times.
“It’s the Wild West out here,” Fong said. “There are no rules.”
This fact is highlighted each day the two friends step outside the dorm room they share near the campus. The ex-Renoites are finding every day brings new obstacles and insights into the culture of Lebanon; the complete disregard for traffic laws is only scratching the surface.
Their Lebanese friend Khoury elaborates on the culture, taking pleasure in pointing out many contradictory facets of life in the Middle East. He explains that while there may be a law against something, it doesn’t mean the law is enforced.
“It isn’t always easy here. There are things that are illegal, but allowed, and then there are things that are illegal and not allowed,” said Khoury, an LAU student and son of the butcher who supplies El Cartel with beef.
A beat-up old BMW zooms by with a toddler sitting in the driver’s lap.
Khoury points, “Illegal, but allowed.”
All things considered, day-to-day life in the taco shop is becoming routine; Fong and Aranda shrug off worries from concerned friends and family, sharing pictures on social media of themselves enjoying argileh, Lebanese for hookah, in front of their shop after a day’s work.
Though the two don’t seem worried about living in a danger zone, there are always reminders that they are living in a country very different from their own.
“There was this guy that usually comes in for coffee, and I know him,” recalls Aranda. “We’ve had conversations before. He’s an ex-military personnel and now he works [in] security for a high-profile person. One day, he comes in the shop, and all of the sudden, he takes out his 9 mm [pistol], cocks it and put one in the barrel and just pointed it in front of my face.”
Aranda pauses and shakes his head.
“I’m chopping onions, thinking, ’OK, what’s going on here? I might die today.’”
He could tell from the gunman’s mannerisms that he was just goofing around.
“He wasn’t really going to shoot me,” Anthony said. “So I was like, ’Justin, get this man his coffee, there’s something wrong with him today.’”
Aranda later displays a photo of himself posing with the same gun. This is life in Lebanon.
No reservations necessary
The future of El Cartel is in question each day. What began as an experiment has turned into a potentially booming business venture, complete with no shortage of personal and legal hurdles. It seems likely the taqueria will continue to provide tacos to the hungry residents of Byblos until moving into Beirut later this year, but as talks intensify between El Cartel and private investors, one-half of the partnership has reevaluated his place in Lebanon.
“I want to stay here for Justin,” Aranda said. “He is my friend, and I want to support him, but I don’t see myself being in the kitchen for that long. I lack the skillset for it, and I don’t want to hold the restaurant or him back. I’m an English teacher as my profession, so I feel like I do more good teaching because I’m trained for it.”
Aranda came to Lebanon with the goal of assisting his friend in realizing a dream. He was able to offer the support Fong needed to build a foundation in Lebanon and hopes one day someone else will also pay it forward. While his future is still uncertain, Aranda knows in his next move, he will have the support of a friend halfway around the world.
Fong has no such reservations: “There’s nothing like getting to your destination, putting your bag down and realizing, ’I fucking made it. Despite all the odds, I made it.’”
Originally published at www.newsreview.com.