Find falafel in a pool hall
Cowboy bars and burrito joints, check. Wine tasting rooms and steakhouses, of course. Italian restaurants and artisan bakeries, of course. All of this makes the Santa Ynez Valley go round.
But falafels and shawarma sold by a Syrian family in a billiard room with country tunes on the radio and sports shows on TV? It’s the daily scene at Santa Ynez Pool & Cafe, and it’s a very enjoyable experience, blending distinctive spices, authentic cuisine and genuine smiles with that satisfying feeling of stumbling upon a secret that’s been hiding in plain sight.
“We always wanted to open our own restaurant,” says Amal Abdulaziz, as a batch of yoghurt gurgles in the kitchen. “But we waited for our children to grow up.” The mother of three – her 34-year-old son is an engineer at Boeing; 19-year-old girl just graduated from Santa Ynez High and attends SBCC – runs the restaurant with her husband, Riyad “Ray” Abdulaziz, while their 28-year-old son, Matt Abdulaziz, handles operations in room, namely walk-in orders, the small bar and sporadic billiard rentals.
They opened their doors at this prominent Edison Street location – the main gateway to the town of Santa Ynez – in 2015 behind the safe veil of a pool hall that sold beer, wine and a small menu of American bar fare, with a handful of Middle Eastern specialties. The latter didn’t go down well at first, but then Matt offered to order the chicken shawarma if the guests were unhappy. Suddenly, the biggest question from customers was, “Where’s the chicken shawarma wrap?” and diners also listened to the rest of the menu, including baba ganoush, tabbouleh and lamb skewer, all handmade by the couple.
“They’re much more popular,” Matt said of those items now. “We sell an ungodly amount of lentil soup.” They also always offer burgers, sandwiches, salads, chicken wings and one of the best three-point sandwiches – rubbed in a mixture of Syrian and Santa Maria spices, grilled over red oak, then cut into appetizing, paper-thin slices. Today, very few people play billiards. “Now it’s more of a restaurant,” Matt said. “Our whole business is food.”
Originally from Homs, Syria, the Abdulaziz family immigrated to Michigan in 1991, where Riyad ran a Middle Eastern spice business and Amal worked as a waitress. In 2015, they were lured to the Santa Ynez Valley by relatives who own many liquor stores in the area, including the Rio Market across from their restaurant.
Both Amal and Riyad started cooking at a very young age with their respective grandmothers, and they looked back to that time to develop their recipes. “We put them together and created this delicious food,” Amal said.
His description is relevant. The salads I’ve tried are crisp with a just-picked freshness: the parsley in the tabbouleh so freshly hand-chopped that it stayed stiff, with cracked wheat as a textural kick; fattoush’s mixture of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers is downright refreshing thanks to the sumac/za’atar/lemon juice/garlic/black pepper dressing and crispy pita chips.
The wraps are tightly wrapped in soft pita bread – purchased monthly from a Lebanese bakery in Ramona – in dense tubes that fit snugly in your mouth, making for a tidy meal that offers layers of saltiness and flavor. sour with every bite. The falafel, to which I added hummus, featured balls of chickpea and refried bean batter the size of golf balls, while the lamb shawarma came to life in the multi-spice baharat seasoning. . Key to both wraps are house-pickled turnips and Persian cucumbers that give each chomp a tangy twist.
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Compared to many shawarma shops that pile slices of meat on a vertical roasting pan to shave on your pita, Riyadh blows up every serving on its own. “The problem with the stick is that it dries out so quickly,” Amal said of this traditional preparation. “Everything is made to order, and it’s juicier.”
For the skewers, I opted for the chicken, which is probably the most accessible Mediterranean dish on the menu: simply pieces of breast, lightly spiced, lightly charred and served with an addictive buttery rice pilaf, a few sheets of pita, slices of red onion and a side of garlic paste. I opted for the spicy garlic paste, an off-menu option that adds jalapeño to the mix, though it’s still the potent garlic that kicks this condiment. This dish also made great leftovers two days later.
Credit: Carl Perry
All of this at modest prices: around $6 for soups and apps, $10 for wraps and salads, and around $15 for plates. “It’s significantly cheaper than anywhere else here,” Matt said. Meanwhile, the wine list is made up entirely of Santa Barbara County — few restaurants can truly claim that — and the beers are also local with bigger brands, which regulars enjoy thanks to the specially priced mug club.
Given the success – to be clear, this location is no secret to many Santa Ynez Valley residents, especially those in the restaurant and wine industry – the Abdulaziz family occasionally flirts with the idea of ditching the pool table, moving the bar, adding more tables, and doing a more refined level of service, which would be Amal’s long-term dream. But that would mean more employees, higher prices and a different vibe.
“For people in the valley, it’s a family gathering place,” Amal said. “They come with their children, who can play pool or table football while drinking a glass of wine or beer.”
Matt said they would stick to that format for now. “People know us as a really funky, hidden place,” he said. “It kind of works.”
1000 Edison Street, Santa Ynez; (805) 697-7109; santaynezbilliardsandcafe.com
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