Shehab Saba knows that most Americans think of car bombs and carnage when they picture his native Lebanon and its capital city of Beirut. But he is single-handedly working to change that perception, one falafel at a time.
As the owner of Shab’s Lebanese Restaurant, located in the corner of a quiet strip mall on Progress Avenue and Paxton Church Road in Susquehanna Township, Saba is eager to educate central Pennsylvanians about this magnificent, misunderstood, country, home to the ancient Phoenicians. A 45-year-old married father of three, Saba is an encyclopedia of knowledge about how Lebanon’s highly nutritious, vegetarian-friendly cuisine compares with the staples in today’s American diet.
Wearing a light gray polo shirt emblazoned with an American flag by his heart, this dark-haired Lebanese immigrant has truly taken to heart the local and national food market and the food choices of most Americans. He can rattle off the menus and marketing slogans of every major fast-food chain and grocery store in America, from Weight Watchers, Wendy’s and Wegmans to Subway, Dream Dinners, four-star restaurants and more. And he is proud of how his cuisine stacks up against the competition.
Unlike the claims of his competitors, who pledge “fresh,” Shab’s food IS fresh. It is all natural and made daily, Saba emphasizes, and is not processed or chemically charged. Saba himself travels often to New York for groceries, and his spices are from overseas.
Since moving to the U.S. from war-torn Lebanon in 1981 at the age of 21, he has clearly studied the rapidly morphing food market and is strolling with the changes.
Formerly known as Shab’s Pita Stroller, Saba’s eatery operated in Strawberry Square from 1989 to 2000. The newly expanded Shab’s, in the Brandywine Plaza since 2001, is half restaurant, half international food market. The market side is a bright, spacious mini-grocery store with tiled floors and well-stocked shelves and freezers. The other half is a small eat-in restaurant with white walls accented with a modern purple zigzag, green Formica tables, silver chairs and whirling ceiling fans.
His market offers New York City deli items, but without the cramped, cluttered quarters of its Manhattan counterparts. The shelves are lined with nutritious novelties such as cucumbers in brine, pomegranate juice, candy-coated chickpeas, salted pumpkin seeds, Arabic coffee, navy beans, Tahina sauce, Ahmad tea, and olive oil, a virtual U.N. of flavors and fare. True “foodies” can find Mediterranean delicacies such as grape leaves salad, hommous, tabbooli salad, spinach pie, rare spices, olives, olive oil, cheeses, kosher foods, baklava and other delightful edible imports – perfect holiday gifts.
With the eatery’s new name and signage, Saba hopes to capitalize upon the fact that Lebanese food is emerging from the shadows to become a cuisine in its own right, instead of being lumped under Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine. Saba is convinced that if more Americans knew about the Lebanese culture and cuisine— particularly how low in calories and high in fiber, calcium and nutrition it is—they would be captivated.
Many prominent attorneys, doctors and business owners already are Shab-aholics.
On his “Wall of Fame” are posted the favorite meals of many of his regular customers, including the “Tom and Jerry Special”, named after attorneys extraordinaire Tom Weber and Jerry Russo. Their namesake dish is a combination of Tabbooli salad and Mediterranean salad with feta cheese, topped with gyro meat, gyro sauce and hot sauce.
The pita stroller is the centerpiece of his menu. Fourteen pita strollers have under six grams of fat, with varieties that include turkey, BLT, West Coast Club, Roast Beef, and Philly Steak. His economical value meals, priced at only $6.60, include the classic gyro, grilled chicken, steak tip kabob, turkey stroller, falafel stroller, and chicken salad, accompanied by soup, salad or fries and a 16 oz. drink.
Shab’s menu includes a nutrition chart to educate his largely American clientele about not only how good his food tastes, but how good it is for them. He calls his restaurant “a one-stop shop for your body.” Saba is now working on an expanded “fun fact” nutritional guide and hopes to soon offer cooking classes so patrons will know how to use the unique ingredients he sells.
Saba’s restaurant is a family affair, with his wife Nellie and sister-in-law working behind the counter, and his children often helping after school. Years ago, Saba started selling on-the-go Lebanese cuisine with his brother, in a site directly across from Harvard Medical School, where medical students were not only steady customers, but official endorsers.
One customer shed 97 pounds eating his 300- calorie special and is eager to be Shab’s equivalent to Subway’s Jared. Recognizing that most of his pita strollers have fewer than 450 calories, several area employers are considering adding Shab’s menu to their wellness plans as a recommended diet.
Customers can either eat in or take out. Shab’s is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and closed Sundays. Although Shab’s is open early, the menu does not include breakfast items. Shab’s is also available for catering.
Ranked among the area’s “Best Delis” in Harrisburg Magazine, Saba wants people to know that Shab’s is far more than a deli. Like his ancestors, the enterprising Phoenicians, Saba is a one-man missionary of civilization, bringing eastern Mediterranean products and culture to people and places craving something rich and rare.
By Diane White McNaughton
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