Dining With Denise Neil

Fattoush: The official salad of Wichita

Meddys fattoush salad is made with lettuce and lots of chunky vegetables.
Meddys fattoush salad is made with lettuce and lots of chunky vegetables.

In Lebanon, a meal is rarely served without a fattoush salad.

Wichita is really not much different.

Thanks to its large Lebanese population, Wichita is in the unique position of having dozens of restaurants that serve traditional Lebanese cuisine – hummus, tabouli, baba ghanoush, shawarma and more. But the fattoush salad – made with lettuce, veggie chunks, crunchy pita and a lemony/garlicky dressing – seems to top that list. Local restaurant owners report that the salad is one of the top-selling items on their menus.

But not all fattoush salads in Wichita are made alike. Dressings differ. Toppings differ. And opinions about what should and shouldn’t go in a fattoush salad differ, too.

“You can use what you want,” said Tony Abdayem, a native of Lebanon and the owner of La Galette at 1017 W. Douglas. “The main thing is lettuce. I like mine with a black olive, radish and cucumber.”

The word “fattoush” roughly translates to “a mixture of vegetables.”

In Lebanon, the salad is made, most natives agree, with romaine lettuce, fresh mint, hunks of tomato, cucumber, radish, olives and crunchy pita chips. The dressing is a mixture of lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and sumac.

Antoine Toubia, who founded the Olive Tree in 1977, introduced Wichita to fattoush salad and other Lebanese dishes. Many of Wichita’s Lebanese restaurant owners worked for or were influenced by Toubia before opening their own places.

One is Abdayem, who worked at Toubia’s Bagatelle early in his career.

The fattoush salad he serves at La Galette consists of romaine lettuce, tomato chunks and pita chips. His dressing has a pinkish hue and is made with olive oil, lemon juice, sumac, salt, pepper and red onion.

Abdayem likes other vegetables on his fattoush, but so many customers would complain about not wanting this or that, he pared it down to a more basic salad. He’ll add other vegetables upon request.

But he won’t add feta cheese, which he says belongs on a Greek salad but not a fattoush.

“I would never use feta cheese,” he said. “The Lebanese, I don’t care who they are, don’t use this.”

Still, one of Wichita’s most popular fattoush salads is served at Le Monde Cafe, 602 N. West St., and is made with a recipe developed by founder Youssef Youssef. The chef, who also founded the once-popular Marbella and later, Mediterranean Grille at 335 S. Towne East Mall Drive, no longer lives in the United States. But his recipe endures.

Youssef added not only feta cheese but also little chunks of pickle to his salad. Though not traditional, the additions are tasty, say the current owners of Le Monde and Mediterranean Grille. And Wichita loves them.

Ghassan Hajeh, who has owned Le Monde since 1993, says that fattoush salad is ordered more than any other menu item at his restaurant. It’s also a staple at Mediterranean Grill, said owner Mustafa Sawli. He’s tweaked Youssef’s dressing recipe to remove some of the olive oil, he said. His dressing is more of an Italian dressing, but customers love it, he said.

“Our fattoush is getting more popular,” he said. “It’s healthy, and people are more interested in trying this salad than any other salad.”

Alex Harb, who owns the popular Meddys at 7906 E. Harry, also is more of a fattoush purist and serves his without feta or pickles.

He also likes to prepare it the way he ate it growing up in Lebanon: 50 percent of the salad is lettuce, but the other 50 percent is chunks of tomato, cucumber and red onion. He also uses fresh mint.

Some restaurateurs bulk their salads up with lettuce, which is cheaper, Harb said. But he doesn’t.

Wichitans should realize how lucky they are to have so many choices when it comes to fattoush salad and Lebanese cuisine in general, Harb said. Few cities Wichita’s size are so well-versed.

“I have not been to a city who has as much good Mediterranean cuisine as Wichita does,” he said. “Every time I go to a different town across the U.S., I always look for the Mediterranean places to see if they make the real deal. But Wichita always has the best.”

Denise Neil’s favorite fattoush salads

La Galette, 1017 W. Douglas: This might be Wichita’s most unadorned fattoush salad, but it’s also one of the most delicious. I love the unique, pinkish-colored dressing the most, and the simplicity of the salad – made just with lettuce, tomato and large pita chips – allows the citrusy dressing to shine.

Le Monde/ Mediterranean Grill/ College Hill Deli and Catering: These three fattoush salads feature the Youssef Youssef addition of pickles and feta cheese, an addition that gets fattoush purists a little upset. I accept that pickles and feta don’t belong in an authentic fattoush, but they taste great and add texture and tang.

Cafe Maurice, 9747 E. 21st St.: Everything is good at Cafe Maurice, including the fattoush, which is made with fancy mixed greens, tomato, pita chips and a dressing made with herbs and spices that are visible on the lettuce leaves.

Meddy’s, 7906 E. Harry: This restaurant’s fattoush does seem to best fit the description of an authentic Lebanese fattoush, and I love the giant chunks of cucumber and tomato.

Readers name their favorite fattoush salads

“Meddys fattoush salad is my absolute favorite! When you want to be healthy and eat light but still enjoy a great salad, this is what I order.” – John Gilliam

“I have tried fattoush salad at several restaurants and my favorite is N&J cafe at Edgemoor and Lincoln. Love the flavor.” – Sharon Miller

“I’ve sampled nearly every fattoush salad this town has to offer, and I’m confident Le Monde is the best.” – Karl Dirchs

“Piccadilly Market, Grill & Bakery and The Muse Cafe at the Wichita Art Museum use the fattoush recipe of Antoine Toubia, the man who transformed the Wichita restaurant scene for decades. That’s the fattoush salad I prefer.” – Cindy Kelly

“M.I.F. Deli is the best Mediterranean food in Wichita, and this is coming from someone who lived in the Middle East.” – Sky Arslan

“Mediterranean Grill’s fattoush uses fresh ingredients and is made using homemade recipes. It’s the best!” – Taylor Hanna

“I can’t believe no one has listed Adrian’s at 21st & Rock Road. Their fattoush salad is amazing as well as everything else on their menu.” – Eric Figgins

“Cafe Maurice!! They have excellent hummus, too.” – Mary Taylor

“Sorry, I must be the only person in town, but I eat the fattoush at Bella Luna at least once if not twice a week. I’m not a fan of the pickles.” – Kristi Edelman

“Bella Luna and Byblos.” –Adriene Geist Rathbun

“Cafe Bel Ami.” – Leslea Roach