The Tcholakian family name has been intertwined with Phoenicia Specialty Foods for over 30 years, but only in the last five has their international empire directly reached a Downtown audience.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure to make sure it evolves in a way that is aligned with the family vision,” says Ann-Marie Tcholakian, one of the family members in charge of day-to-day operations at the Downtown location. “But you also have a lot of family members, so you have to figure out what that vision is.”
According to Ann-Marie, aligning the family’s vision with being Downtown meant the creation of a “more urban space for people to get together, to appreciate food, music, art, each other and to celebrate.” That translated into 28,000 square feet of groceries, prepared foods, a grill, a deli, a pita conveyor, beer, wine, hookahs, cigars, cookbooks (many written by locals), a bakery, coffee bar, restaurant and bar, performance space, art installations, rotating photography exhibits and so much more.
“I’m very much in the creative energy aspect of the business,” says Ann-Marie.” I’m more of the retail and marketing side of things. [My brother] Haig is the ‘brother of brews,’ being into the wines and beers and making that part of the business very boutique, interesting and gathering an eclectic collection. But he and I both do a lot of creative and marketing together.”
While most of the operations fall upon Ann-Marie and Haig, the initial efforts were family-wide.
“My dad has an architectural engineering background and has always been the one drawing and planning,” says Ann-Marie. “We presented him with this space Downtown and he got his red pencil out and started drawing. What he drew didn’t really change much once the architects got the plans. They took it and ran with it.”
Ann-Marie says between the two locations, everyone in the family is so busy that it’s hard to find time to get together. But their bond remains as strong (and profitable) as ever.
“Growing up, my parents always instilled in us how important family is, and that’s always been a part of me. It’s something that defines us. My parents came here many years ago and built something. To be able to build on top of that is something we’re proud of.”
Phoenicia’s Food(ie) Pyramid
It may not be the kind of majestic monuments found amidst the hot desert sands of Egypt, but it’s equally as impressive. (Not to mention the complimentary parking located in the garage above the store!) Phoenicia Specialty Foods Downtown is a foodie wonderland, stocked with treasures.Its location at 1001 Austin on the ground level of One Park Place adjacent to Discovery Green lends it status as a prime picnic supply stop and its hierarchy of offerings is so layered, only a pictorial pyramid can fully express the majesty within.
Phoenicia is anything but basic, however, if you are in need of the basics, it’s a good place to start. Picking up a gallon of milk for your morning cereal? You’re covered. Throwing together a salad for dinner? The produce section is fully stocked. A recent trip revealed fresh, ripe Texas peaches, green almonds (look them up, they’re an extremely rare find in Houston), ruby red tomatoes and more.
Craving pork chops? There’s an impressive meat and seafood section for any kind of dinner you’d dream up, with many of the items already marinated and ready to throw in the oven or on the grill.
While you’re perusing the aisles for ketchup, mayonnaise, bread and other essentials, dash upstairs. Completing your “basic” run here can mean grabbing a toothbrush, an apron or two, shampoo boasting beer as an ingredient (Ann-Marie, swears by it), hand and body soaps or a healthy amount of their house-mixed seasoning blends. Try the za’atar or the Greek spices — they brighten up just about any savory dish and make cooking an adventure.
Loaves of bread, lunch meat, eggs (including duck), juice, cereal, grains, dried beans, canned goods and more make it easy to stock your pantry and refrigerator.
Locally made, gourmet and international items
Cheeballsy’s, alfajors, Dillapeno, MeSauce, shanklish. Confused yet? Don’t be. It’s just a handful of specialty products you’ll find in the freezers, shelves and corners of Phoenicia.
- Cheeballsy’s - frozen cheese puffs modeled after the gluten-free Brazilian snacks known as pão de queijo (made right here in Houston and almost impossible to find outside of local farmer’s markets). Just heat up the oven, throw them on a cookie sheet and they’re ready in no time.
- Alfajors from Sweets by Belen - delicate sandwich cookies squished together with rich dulce de leche (caramel) and hand crafted by local baker and Peruvian native, Belen Bailey.
- Smither Family Dillapeno - A spicy dill relish made by a local family. They have multiple varieties, and Phoenicia is a great place to stock up.
- MeSauce - Rosenberg-produced line of dressings, dips and spreads that range from adventurous (sweet corn sauce) to savory (chimichurri) to classic (real Peruvian mayonnaise).
- Shanklish - While it may sound like a tool prisoners secretly fashion inside a penitentiary, it’s really a delicious ball of cheese seasoned with a special blend of spices. Phoenicia customers started asking for it, and when the Tcholakian family couldn’t find a suitable import, they decided to make their own version.
A sample haul from a visit could include any number of exotic items like tiny tins of pâté, jars of red pepper spread, exotic olives, boxes of Turkish delight, multiple varieties of halva, Lebanese cheeses, wild rice, pickled ginger and German chocolates made with malted wheat.
Beer & Wine
Carefully curated by one of the Tcholakian siblings, Haig, it’s the quality and variety of Phoenicia’s beer and wine selection, not necessarily the quantity, that’s intriguing.
“When curating the beer and wine selection of Phoenicia and MKT BAR,” says Haig, “my intent is to marry the international flavors of our cuisine to those breweries and vineyards from regions that carry the same distinctive characteristics. I focus my search on finding quality, affordable, boutique wines from smaller producers to stock year-round.”
The wine section upstairs is always a quiet refuge to the hustle and bustle of the bottom floor, and a labyrinth of international offerings. Armenia, South Africa, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, Lebanon, Georgia (the country, not the Southern state), Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Uruguay, Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Australia all have a presence alongside more traditionally popular varietals and countries. And this list is NOT comprehensive. Luckily, passports are not required to purchase any bottles, though a valid ID proving you are of drinking age certainly is.
Over 200 beers and ciders from around the world can also be found — think Argentina, Russia, New Zealand, Turkey, Canada and of course, the U.S.— in store. Haig estimates the selection is approximately 25 percent local and Texas-based, 15 percent American craft brews, with the remaining 60 percent being of international origin.
Haig’s recent favorites: “The sweet and spiced La Socarrada Rosemary Ale from Spain, refreshing Moa Breakfast Ale from New Zealand and the Moody Tongue Sliced Nectarine IPA brewed in Chicago by Jared Rouben, who seeks input from innovative, noteworthy chefs while emphasizing the use of locally sourced ingredients in the brewing process.”
Coffee bar & bakery
It fuels your workday, it lights up your life. It’s the morning’s yin to the night before’s yang. It’s coffee and it’s fresh and it’s plentiful at Phoenicia. Baristas create specialty drinks like cappuccino and espresso with extra special ingredients from the market like halva (a Middle Eastern sweet made with sesame flour and honey) for days when you need something more than just a cup of Joe. But there’s more. You can take any number of loose-leaf teas home with you or a package of the house-blended Zorab’s chai. Whole-bean coffee is at the ready to throw in your basket as well.
Of course, you can’t pick up any of these wonderful vehicles of caffeinated goodness without crossing into Phoenicia’s extensive bakery and confections area, and you can’t cross into Phoenicia’s bakery without taking home at least four pastries, because it is impossible to choose any fewer than four. But it’s ok, because #YOLO. Also, because their baklava is the bee’s knees. And so are those cinnamon rolls. And maybe a few of those chocolate chip cookies. And — ok, ok! — maybe a package of the locally made Lady Lavender marshmallows and some vibrantly hued macarons in a perfect little box. Take a few deep breaths and count to five. It’s time to walk away now. Just. Walk. Away.
Prepared foods, deli and grill
Breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s all ready for the taking. A large portion of the downstairs area at Phoenicia is dedicated to getting you delicious food as quickly and efficiently as possible. It all starts at the grill with breakfast, from 7 to 10:30 a.m. on weekdays and 9 to 11 a.m. on weekends. Breakfast meetings are a hit with choices like the chicken shawarma wrap with scrambled eggs, slow-roasted chicken, spinach, tomatoes and onions or the kielbasa wrap stuffed with sausage, eggs, roasted peppers, cheddar and hash browns. Everything is customizable in case you’re a spinach-phobe or allergic to tomatoes. And coffee? Just look one level down this pyramid.
Lunch can be a little cramped, but lines move quickly and you can always grab some prepared salads without having to stand in line at the grill. There are plenty of pre-packaged versions (check out the garbanzo bean salad, or the cool, refreshing cucumber salad) or choose from behind the glass case. The baby octopus salad is tasty, the pesto chicken salad is sublime, and no one should ever leave without some type of freshly made hummus in their bag. Pair it with some of the just-packaged pitas for best results. There’s also a plethora of pre-made — though still fresh as a spring daisy — sandwiches crafted with their house-baked breads. The salad bar is an easy way to pile on crisp vegetables and pair it with a cup of hot soup.
If you have a little more patience and appreciate an affordable, hot meal in the middle of the day (or for dinner), step up to the grill and watch the giant spits of roasting meats rotating slowly behind the steam tables. It’s just like a blue plate special, with varying vegetables, proteins and starches each day, only with a little more international flair. Step up to the line and choose your culinary destiny.
Dinner is usually a little more chill, with similar choices in both the deli and grill areas. If you’re in the mood to linger, make a visit to MKT Bar.
It’s a luxury to be able to drink wine before or after — or before and after — grocery shopping. Phoenicia’s MKT Bar is the place for local, regional and national beers on tap, plus an eclectic but approachable menu of wines by the glass or bottle. Though a popular drinking destination for weekday happy hours and weekend unwinding, MKT Bar stands alone in its food menu. Tuesday and Thursday are popular for steak night, with a chef’s choice of beef served with chimichurri sauce, a choice of za’atar-spiced fries or twice-baked potato and a salad for $12.99. Roasted chicken, lamb tacos, fish and chips, a curried vegetable pot pie, pizzas, chicken wings, salads, queso, chili and more mean a trip for “just appetizers and a drink” could turn into, “Oh my word, did we really just eat all that for dinner?” Important side note: MKT Bar has its very own gelato case.
Art and photography exhibits rotate frequently, featuring the works of local and regional artists, with a recent facelift to the space by award-winning designer, Gin Braverman. DJs spin weekly, with live musicians and bands performing on a regular basis. It’s been a stage for many local acts, including The Suffers, whose lead singer, Kam Franklin, inspired a namesake sandwich on the menu. Events are as much a part of MKT Bar as is Rockets pre-gaming (it’s only a 6-minute walk to the Toyota Center), with a well-attended brunch available both weekend days. Saturdays are lighthearted with retro cartoons, free cereal for kids from 9-11 AM and pajama attire encouraged, while Sundays are a time to chill with jazz bands often booked for the brunch hours.
The easiest way to keep track of MKT Bars weekly specials and events is through their website: www.MKTBar.com.
Reaching the highest level of hierarchy is the in-store pita conveyor, designed and engineered by the Tcholakian family patriarch, Bob, who was once an architectural engineer before diving into the importing and wholesale business. Not only does the conveyor deliver the pillowy-soft pitas from bakery to a packaging station in the heart of the store, but the journey allows them to cool enough to place in the bags that eventually go home with customers.
“Our dad imagined the idea to add a pita conveyer to our operation [in Downtown],” says Ann-Marie Tcholakian. “We thought he had finally lost his mind, but soon it became apparent to the family, and to customers young and old alike that this provided something very whimsical and special – and of course it is also still practical because it does act as a cooling mechanism.”
Like manna from heaven, there are a total of 2,700 pitas that emerge from Phoenicia’s Downtown conveyor every day (compared to the 29,400 produced by the mother ship on Westheimer), baked in an oven that ranges from 800-1200 degrees Fahrenheit. High heat is necessary for obtaining the perfect amount of pita “puff.”