Local eats: Karam’s Middle East Bakery

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Karam's Middle East Bakery on Campbell Avenue, known for their fresh baked Lebanese fare and family atmosphere, has been a local favorite for over 40 years.

Op-ed: Great Lebanese food only a few blocks away from UC

For those who want to eat fresh, and are seeking more than what the cafeteria offers, I highly recommend Karam’s Middle East Bakery, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from campus on Campbell Ave.

Finding a parking spot at Karam’s during the lunch rush can be tricky, like finding a spot at UC in the morning. There is plenty of parking on the street, though.

When making your way inside, a line to the counter and packed house will likely greet you. The inviting smell of freshly baked bread fills the air. The place is bubbling with activity and conversation.

The vibes are warm and welcoming, like a crowded holiday dinner celebration. Everyone including the customers are friendly, and seem happy to be there. This sense of well-being rubs off on you. The staff are always bustling around, weaving expertly through the crowd, delivering plates of food to guests dining in and ringing out customers at a steady clip in the takeout line.

Trays of baklava temp take out customers as they wait in line. Photo by Kyle Riecker

To the right, there is a glass case filled with Middle Eastern ornaments and dishes, as well as trays of baklava and bags of dried dates and other sweet treats.  To the left, on shelves, are an assortment of freshly-made Lebanese baked goods. There’s fresh pita bread of varying sizes, and triangular pies stuffed with spinach, meat or sausage.  There is a cooler filled with containers of humous and Baba Ghonnoj.

Karam’s baked goods section is filled with fresh pita brad, pies, and other Middle Eastern fare, as well as a shelf of spices and other essential ingredients for Lebanese cooking. Photo by Kyle Riecker

If you have not tasted these Middle Eastern delicacies, I suggest moving out of your five-dollar-foot-long comfort zone and head to Karam’s. You won’t regret it.

I have a habit of going to Karam’s for a sandwich and leaving with an armful of baked goods.  And when I say habit — it’s serious.

I may have start to attending support group meetings for my addiction to their falafel sandwich, which for a modest $5, is one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted in my life.

Knowing that I’ve spent my first 33 years without this sandwich inside my digestive tract is a sheer travesty – and I intend to make up for lost time by visiting Karam’s as often as possible.

The falafel sandwich is vegetarian, and achieves a seamless balance of heartiness, creaminess, crunch, tang and a whole spectrum of other textures and flavors.

I didn’t really know exactly what was in the falafel sandwich until recently- and frankly I didn’t care. But as their website explains, the sandwich consists of a “combination of falafel, lettuce, tomato, radish, pickled turnip, peppers, and tahini sauce wrapped in thin pita bread.”

Karam’s take out menu is top notch and all house-made. Here’s my go-to item, their amazing falafel wrap sandwich. Photo by Kyle Riecker

The sandwich is rolled up in wax paper and twisted at the end like a joint (of tobacco, of course), to keep all of the juices contained.  As you nosh your way down, and peel back the paper, you are eventually left with an unfolding stub of pita bread, which cradles the remaining sandwich contents in a pool of juicy flavor.

The stub. Choices, choices choices. Just go for it! Photo by Kyle Riecker

The choice then is do you dispose of the stub, or awkwardly shove the rest in your mouth before it falls apart?  My advice is to screw table manners and go for it.  Every bit of this sandwich screams flavor, and none of it should be wasted.

Sharon Kanfoush, who is a professor of geoscience at Utica College, eats at Karam’s frequently. It reminds her of her childhood.

“As the daughter of Lebanese father, I was raised having occasional Lebanese dinners along with more typical American fare. And big family gatherings were always celebrated with a huge table full of various wonderful Lebanese dishes made by my aunts,” Kanfoush said. “Eating at Karam’s brings me back to my childhood. I have learned and occasionally make a couple different Lebanese dishes for my family, but they are fairly time-consuming to make. I love that I can run to Karam’s for a “quick fix” when a craving strikes!”

Maybe I’ll ask Kanfoush to join my support group, although stuffed grape leaves are her go-to at Karam’s.

Mary and Seagan (John), owners of Karam’s Middle East Bakery. Photo by Kyle Riecker

The owners are an older Lebanese man named Seagan, who goes by John, and his wife Mary. John hangs out with his friends at a table near the counter. He often jumps into the fray of lunch rush to help out if things aren’t moving along quick enough for his liking.

Mary does the same; they are both active in day-to-day operations, and have been since they opened Karam’s over 40 years ago.

The running joke is that John’s the meanest guy in Utica, due to his stern expression. Once you’ve been there a few times, you’ll realize nothing is further from the truth. He’s a proud business owner who will make sure you have a great experience.

Another of my favorites is Karam’s humous, which for $4.50, is a great deal compared to those dinky Sabra containers sold on campus with like three pretzel chips. It also beats any humous available at the supermarket in terms of price and quality.

Freshly cut cucumber spears, pretzel chips, cherry tomatoes, or even just your fingers are all appropriate delivery vehicles for their humous.

The spinach-stuffed pies are superb as well. I like to dip them in their humous, which makes a healthy snack that you won’t feel guilty about. The pies come in bags of three, and are only $2.50.

There are many other items on the menu that I haven’t tried yet, such as the kibbie, but I’m sure they are also delicious. There’s always something to look at and wonder how it tastes as you wait in line.

My advice is to explore Utica and its many local restaurants, which represent a wide range of nationalities- odds are that you will get more bang for your buck, both in terms of flavor and cost.

And you might learn to love some new foods as well, like Karam’s falafel sandwich, or perhaps something else off their  menu.  If you find yourself in need of a support group for your new found food addiction, call me, we meet on Wednesday nights.

Karam’s is open Tuesday through Friday, 9:00a.m. – 5:00p.m., and Saturday, 9:00a.m.-3:00p.m., please visit http://karamsbakery.com/ for more information.

 

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