Cafe Review: The Great Hidden Syrian Bakery of Mesa
SOURCE: PHOENIX NEW TIMES
BY: CHRIS MALLOY
We live in a great bread city. We have a wide range of artisan loaves, some made from heirloom local flour. There is also our storied pizza culture, pizza being a flatbread with cheese and maybe sauce. In greater Phoenix, you can find lacy viennoiseries, cloud-light telera rolls. You can find unholy boureks and heavenly sangak. And now, seekers of dough baked to its hot, savory potential gain another prime destination.
That destination is Shamy Market & Bakery in Mesa.
Nestled against the back wall of Shamy’s expansive specialty market, behind the rows of vacuum-packed olives and creamy labneh, the wondrous bakery counter awaits. Simple and unadorned, the focus being a gas oven with a neat row of tiny fire plumes, the bakery blazes a wide range of Syrian-style breads. A modest display case reveals, too, leanly stocked baked sweets: baklava with crushed neon-green pistachios, kanafa of fine, syrupy woven strips …
At Shamy, sweet and savory recipes come from the matriarch of the Alimam family. The Alimams (who didn’t want to share first names) moved to metro Phoenix in 2011, once they saw that the war in their home, Syria, was worsening. They came from Damascus. Shamy is the family’s first endeavor in professional food. A mom, dad, and their four daughters work in the market and bakery. Today, in the wake of a war that has quietly and destructively roiled on, more than 6 million Syrians are refugees. Many, like the Alimams, have turned to re-creating the flavors of their past home to make a living in their new one.
As you might expect at a restaurant that is almost wholly Syrian — with a few of the recipes being more broadly Middle Eastern — the food at Shamy’s bakery isn’t dominated by spit-carved shawarma. The rich lamb and multifarious kibbe of Syrian cuisine aren’t the centerpiece, either.
The heartbeat at Shamy is bread. Bread hot and fluffy. Bread shoveled right out of the oven and onto your plate. Bread in the form of pita and pizza, yes. But more than anything, bread as manakeesh.
Manakeesh is a flatbread, one that can be coated with an expansive range of toppings. That range flexes at Shamy. You can order manakeesh blanketed with egg and cheese or spinach, onion, and pomegranate molasses. You can order it bubbled with akkawi cheese or paved with labneh and honey.
You can (and should) order it with za’atar — the now-common green spice blend of herbs and toasted sesame seeds — and halloumi, a semihard cheese with a dense, squishy bite and a rush of salinity. You have the option to order your manakeesh as an oval, circle, or “boat.” The boat looks like a fat canoe.
Once on your table in the seating area, a za’atar-and-halloumi manakeesh wisps gentle steam. Za’atar has been used with restraint, the surface speckled a fine green, but not as thickly as you often see. The judicious use allows the flavor of the hot bready vehicle itself to take center stage, the za’atar providing herbaceous accents and edits. The fine, fragrant flavor of yeast-risen dough brings all the comfort of a fluffy, adeptly baked flatbread. It thins toward the center, to about the consistency of a folder. This makes for bites crisper than those close to the puffier rim.
But ordered as a boat, this manakeesh brings new textures, a new experience.
Pinched ends widen, quickly, into a shape like a canoe or football with the top cut off. Inside the sloping golden and brown-hued sides, solid and melted toppings pool. A topping combo that thrives in this shape is Safiha Shamia, a decadent blend of minced beef, tahini, and pomegranate paste. Though pomegranate can be a potent flavor, its influence comes in empty of its usual tartness, the remainder multiplying the flavor of the rich beef, and adding a whisper of sweetness.
These manakeesh tend to be as satisfying as they are affordable. (You can eat like a king at Shamy for $15.) But you should be mindful of a few caveats. First, opting for cheese may result in the other toppings, like a flavor-packed muhammara (red pepper and walnut sauce), getting smothered. Second, Shamy’s pizza-style options won’t thrill you given the advanced state of pizza at the best spots across the Valley.
Pitas, though, are as good as manakeesh. Under the spell of steady gas flames, round dough discs sail full, puffing up like uneven balloons.
They come beside Shamy’s range of spreads, salads, and sides — all of which can be as inspired as the pitas. Hummus proves to be light with something of a whipped consistency, leaning more on chickpea than tahini. It’s a solid version, but baba ghanoush is better still. It is smooth with chunks of eggplant and a cool, late-blooming smoke. A pita broken and dragged through won’t last more than a few minutes.
And fattoush, despite its appearance — a bowl of workaday chopped pale romaine — is another standout. Shards of crunchy pita add texture. A generous dusting of purple sumac gives the classic salad a pointillist look, and brightness to go with a limber dressing widely alive with lemon juice.
Fava beans (foul) are probably the best non-bread item of the bunch. Where to begin? Favas the size of small oysters heap in a bowl. They have a mild nutty flavor that overlaps with roasted chestnuts, but they are electrified with a dressing light on lemon and huge, warm, and spellbinding with chopped garlic. Chopped tomatoes and a raft of parsley come on top, plus lots and lots of olive oil. And when the tender beans are history, you can drag your pita through the bright residual sauce.
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A meal at Shamy is a delight, even if you roll the dice on a pizza-style bread or two. Aside from all the food, there is free black tea. And there are different hot sauces on just about every table, some with Arabic labels. The figs and olive oils of the market’s shelves loom, and in-the-know locals come in and out, savoring manakeesh boats and some of the best and longest dolmas in town, not to mention sujuk sandwiches of cumin-spiced beef on crunchy bread.
Shamy is the kind of eatery that, once discovered, will always enter your mind while driving in its vicinity. It will trail you like the notes of a catchy song. Those pitas and favas will always be lurking in your memory when you’re near, just screaming to be eaten and experienced again. Metro Phoenix is lucky to have the Alimams in town — sharing these beautiful flavors, elevating our eating scene.
Shamy Market & Bakery
1110 West Southern Avenue, #8, Mesa
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Baba ghanoush $5.49
Za’atar and halloumi manakeesh (round) $5.49
Safiha Shamia manakeesh (boat) $2.99