Salaam: A Multicultural Experience
Salaam, a Mediterranean dining escape, has a diverse customer base that reflects their multicultural approach to cooking. Whether you are a vegan, first-timer, or seasoned falafel expert, Salaam has something to offer every kind of customer. The restaurant is popular among university faculty and students alike because of the diverse menu and reasonable prices. The high quality of the food makes Salaam an essential destination for any campus visitors or parents.
The restaurant was originally Shisha Café, a hookah bar with small dishes like hummus and soups. The shift to just food came as a result of a statewide ban on tobacco in restaurants that came into effect around 2007. Hilarie Burhans, owner of Salaam, and the rest of the staff had to decide what they wanted to do more, tobacco or food. The answer was overwhelmingly food due to the popularity of the small dishes they offered in a limited kitchen.
Since then, Salaam has fully embraced Mediterranean food and culture which has made it appealing to a variety of tastes.
Vegan Perspective: Professor Robert Stewart, a regular at Salaam since the restaurant’s move to Washington Street, has been a vegan for the past 4 years. His diet shift was partially the result of his wife suggesting they try CHIP. The Continuous Health Improvement Program emphasizes a heavy fruit and vegetable diet with minimal meat and dairy. A typical and tiresome question he receives as a vegan is, “How do you get your protein?” at which he laughs and shakes his head. The professor referenced the “industry built by dairy and meat” and discussed how the subsidization of those products leads to false beliefs regarding diet. Stewart has a well-rounded experience with the restaurant because he’s been to Salaam as both a meat eater and non-meat eater. In terms of his favorite dish, he said, “I am totally happy going in and getting the $5 Harira Soup,” which comes with vegan flatbread. When asked about his top five restaurants here in Athens, Stewart struggled, partially because of the strength of the town’s food scene. “In no particular order, I’d have to say Salaam, Casa Nueva, Thai Paradise, China Fortune and a complex tie for fifth,” he said.
Internal Perspective: Ms. Burhans is a jack of all trades, playing every possible role for the restaurant, most recently, spokesperson. She said when designing the current venue she wanted to, “…make the decorum of the restaurant feel like a different world when you walked in.” Walking into Salaam, gives guests the feeling they are entering the world of Aladdin, from the traditional rugs to the ornately-patterned table cloths. Everything about Salaam is as authentic as possible so that the meal is a truly Mediterranean experience. From the olive oil dipping for bread to the yogurt sauce popularly served with most meats, much of the menu tries to stay true to the roots of the food while offering a unique interpretation. “What we set out to do was basically have good food,” Hilarie said, describing her food mission. “Our interpretation of traditional recipes and also really accessible things for people a little nervous about trying this kind of food.” The part about making the food accessible and friendly to all is one of the strengths of Salaam. They have menu items to appease both first-time eaters as well as seasoned Mediterranean consumers with everything in between. Hilarie stated that she almost always chooses whatever the day’s special is.
Adam Jordan, a chef at Salaam who has been working with Hilarie since they were at Shisha, believes the restaurant is unique relative to the area. “Salaam is a great place to try food offered nowhere else….a totally different experience,” he said. Jordan had no formal training before beginning his cooking career, but spent time prepping with ACEnet and working at Souvlaki’s Medditerranean Gardens before becoming a full-time staff member at Salaam. He also helped with the transition from the hookah bar to the current venue because of his construction experience. When asked about his favorite dish, Jordan debated between the coconut chicken curry and the chicken paprikash, ultimately choosing the paprikash.
Authentic Perspective: Mahmoud Tabbaa is a junior studying biology at Ohio University and recently attended Arabian Culture Night event hosted by the Arabic Language Student Association, of which he is vice president. Mahmoud offered an authentic and critical perspective on the restaurant’s food as he has been eating Mediterranean cuisine his whole life, since he was a child in Jordan. The event was catered by Salaam, and Tabba said, “The food was the best part of the night.” He might have to hide from his mother but Mahmoud even said, “If I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell the difference,” referring to his mother’s cooking and Salaam’s. His eyes lit up when he mentioned some of the foods that he misses from Jordan that Salaam doesn’t serve. “Koussa, which is kind of a stuffed eggplant….kebeh, a fried meatloaf with pine nuts served with laban,” the latter of which is a yogurt sauce. Mahmoud’s favorite dish he’s gotten from Salaam is the chicken kebobs, which were served at the ALSA event, but are also available at the restaurant.
P.S. If you’re curious where the second entree is, I became too immersed in the experience (I’m hungry like a wolf) and it slipped my mind to take a picture before I chowed down. My dish was the Moroccan Lamb Wrap, as they cook lamb better than anywhere I’ve ever had it.