A genetically gifted stomach brings flavorful dishes from the Bekaa Valley to the Sacramento Valley
If you have ever eaten at Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon, you remember Abdul Maalouf. With his Caltrans orange Maalouf’s shirt and his giant gold cedar tree necklace—which could rival a rapper’s in size—he mans the grill and circulates among the customers with his wife Rita at his side. They both have soft voices, warm brown eyes and melodious Lebanese accents. Mr. Maalouf radiates pride, declaring his meat to be the, “number one lamb, the number one chicken.” The crisp and piquant salads (the tabouli is “hand chopped” and has “twelve spices”), the rich and tangy house-made labneh, the garlicky shawarma and the decadent Aish El Sarayeh dessert, soaked in rose water, topped with pudding and pistachios, all keep customers coming back for more.
Where are you from in Lebanon?
Baalbeck, in the North Bekaa Valley.
When did you immigrate to America?
First in 1995. I went back. I came back in 1999. Almost 10 years.
When did you open Maalouf’s?
April 9, 2002.
Did you own restaurants in Lebanon?
I had small ones, but long time ago before the  Civil War.
How does Lebanese food differ from Syrian and Israeli food?
All other countries have some other source for their living, you know, natural materials, metals in the ground, oil, something, and in Lebanon we have nothing. We have only hospitality and good restaurants … so we need it to be the best. So we can make our living. People will come for it. For generations and generations and generations you keep what you know from the elderly, and you are making it a little better. Lebanon has been known for all our history, for being a good place to visit, enjoy the weather, good food.
You say you have the “number one lamb.” Where do you get your meats?
Same source maybe where other restaurants take it, but the difference is how you clean the meat, how you marinate the meat, how you work on it, know what I mean? It makes the difference. So, you give me the same meat you giving to other, it will not taste the same on the dish.
Where do you get the Armenian sausage?
Oh, I do it myself. I make it.
Your favorite Lebanese dish?
I won’t lie to you, dishes to Lebanese cook is like kids to the mother! You cannot see any difference between them! But you know, I’m proud, the way I make the lamb. All American people, usually, I heard, they like beef more than lamb. When I opened this place, I fight it too much to convince them about lamb, and now I sell maybe 100 lamb dish to sell five or six beef! They all love it.
Your favorite thing about owning Maalouf’s?
The only reason I opened Maalouf’s is when I had my gardening business before, the landscaping, you have no direct contact with people. And I hate it to find something separating me from all the people, talk with them, share with them their good and their bad times. So, one day I decided the best thing is to go back to cooking. And I found this place—small place but according to my budget the best I can do. But I have thousands of friends now.
You have the Yelp sticker that says “people love us on Yelp.” Do you ever read your reviews on Yelp?
No, I don’t believe in it. I’m an old-fashioned man. I believe in one thing only: direct people with people. I don’t even use computer. All electronics that keep people away from each other, I don’t like it. Even if you call me name, in my face, it is much more better for me than to read something good you put on the computer. And unfortunately, sometimes, you try to do good things to people and they might not understand it. Not all people have the same culture, the same attitudes, you know. We try our best to make them all happy. Even Jesus himself did not make all the people happy when he came on Earth. I cannot be better than he was.
How is the current economy affecting your business?
Oh yeah, I didn’t lose. But my customers lost all their income, who was coming here twice a week; he can come here once every two months now. Not like before. I am trying my best to stand for them. It’s so hard. It’s not like before. Before it was like triple business than now.
Who taught you to cook?
My stomach. We, in my family, that’s the big blessing from God. We got it from my grandmother, on my mother’s side. I cook, my mother cook, my brother cook, my auntie cook. All good cooks. We love food. We don’t like to cook something if we don’t like to eat it.