Beer, chips and makdous
New market adds Mediterranean flavor to Chico
Chico, CA 95928
If you just casually walked up to the entrance of Bella Family Market—situated in one of those plain strip malls that dot the Walnut/Nord corridor on the west side of town—you would have no reason to think that it was anything other than the “beer-and-wine and groceries” mini-mart that its sign advertises. Inside, there are a few cases of adult beverages and all the snacks and basic groceries you’d expect, but focus in on the crowded shelves, and you’ll see a whole world of flavors not usually found at a corner store in Chico: canned dolmas, cheeses with names like nabulsi and halloumi, frozen cubes of goat meat, and in the middle of a section packed with colorful pickled treats, a big jar of tasty looking makdous, marinated baby eggplants stuffed with walnuts and hot peppers.
But interestingly, when husband and wife Adel and Mountahah Mubaraka (who also own the Dome Store in Concow, where they’ve sold groceries and general goods for the past 15 years) first opened Bella in July of 2011, they weren’t planning on selling ethnic foods. “In the beginning, it was a regular mini market,” said Mountahah as she gave me a tour of the store now mostly filled with Mediterranean/Middle Eastern items imported from all over the United States, Europe, north Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.
“[Chico has] a lot of Middle Eastern people—from Europe, from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq,” she said, adding that customers kept telling them that they should carry foods from their homeland since the only options for Middle-Eastern groceries was driving to Sacramento or San Francisco.
“We started with a small thing and it is growing up,” Mountahah said, explaining that the couple have built up the selection by not only stocking foods from their native Syria, but also by trying to accommodate as many different Middle Eastern and Mediterranean requests as possible. Sometimes it’s a specific product, like halawa (or halva), a pistachio dessert popular in Turkey and Lebanon, or even just a specific brand of a staple like couscous, of which they have several choices to match regional preferences (if you’re cooking for Jewish friends, choose a bag by Osem).
Bella is well-stocked with olive oils from a dozen different countries, halal meats (lamb, goat, beef, chicken, sausages), two cases of cheese, a nice variety of dates and jams, huge bags of nuts, Turkish coffee, every Middle Eastern spice you could want, and pastries (including a box from the famous Shatila bakery in Dearborn, Mich., which Mountahah called “the best Mediterranean sweets in America. When you taste it, you never want to stop.”)
The response to the store’s change in direction has been so good that, in January, they expanded the store into the space next door.
“It is very nice,” Mountahah said, “I didn’t know how much people like the food. It’s incredible.”
And, for those of us not there to revisit the flavors of home, Bella offers some tasty new choices to the Chico menu. For my first visit, I took the advice of a clerk named Omar and bought some plump dates and dipped them in a “milk-cream spread” called gaimar (or kaymak)—which tasted like very-low-salt cream cheese and blended nicely with the sweet, buttery fruit.
When I went back for a second visit, I made it a point to show up on a Wednesday in order to take advantage of the delivery of fresh pita bread (every Wednesday). I grabbed a package of hummus, a jar of Puck cream-cheese spread (a soft, white Danish processed cheese) and Angel Hair, a salty and insanely delicious Armenian string cheese made with little black nigella (black cumin) seeds, and had an impromptu office picnic, washing it all down with a can of “Middle East” mango nectar.
Most recently, the Mubarakas have installed a couple of cold cases next to the front register and plan on filling them with their own fresh-made desserts and savory items in the near future. Until then, there are still a lot of new-to-me treats to explore (I have my eye on you, makdous!), and plenty of ingredients with which to attempt creating a Middle-Eastern dish of my own. Mountahah has even provided a family recipe (see story online), for the classic stuffed-grape-leaf dish, dolma—or as she calls it, warak enab—to get me started.