It's just before the usual lunch rush, and Licha Fayad is taking a rare break: Since he became founding general manager of Kassab's restaurant, in 1996, Fayad says he's worked 17 hours a day.
Half of those hours have been spent at LeMont, where Fayad is a sous chef, and the other half at the South Side's most popular spot for Middle Eastern food, owned by and named for his brother-in-law, Tony Kassab.
Over the years, Kassab's has become nearly as much an institution as Mount Washington landmark LeMont. It's earned its reputation dishing up falafel, baba ghannooj and spinach pie for the diverse, BYOB crowds that fill the place for lunch and dinner six days a week.
Fayad came to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1993 to join his wife's family (his sister, Houda, is Tony Kassab's wife). Kassab's began at 10th and Carson, in a cramped space that had for years been inhospitable to restaurants.
But Kassab's flourished: It was American enough to serve a kids' menu and French fries, Pittsburgh enough for steak salad -- and authentic enough to toss around names like sheesh tawook (a chicken kabob) and loobyeh (sautéed green beans with onions and tomatoes). In 2004, Kassab's migrated two blocks closer to the heart of the business district, tripling its seating capacity, to 75.
The hummus is still creamy, the chicken shawarma succulent, the Portobello sandwich delectable. Other favorites include moussaka, a sort of Middle Eastern lasagna with layered vegetables and beef. It also comes in an all-veg version that solidifies Kassab's vegetarian-friendly reputation. But it's with the cold salads -- like tabbouli and fattoosh -- that you really taste that Kassab's makes everything from scratch.
Except for the pitas (from Brookline's Pitaland), all the food in this family operation is prepared in the back, including the signature baklava (a pastry with walnuts and honey). There's even home-made yogurt.
Wall murals depict traditional life in Lebanon: men playing chess by the sea, a line of dancers. It's not the only reason the place feels homey. Licha says that while customers often ask whether Kassab's might move somewhere bigger still, or open another branch, he doesn't foresee it. "We like it. We stay here."
1207 E. Carson St., South Side