Kassem Chammout (who goes by Kasey) knows how to run a full-service restaurant. His La Pita Dearborn is a large complex, including restaurant, nightclub, catering business, and banquet rooms. So to him, opening the stripped-down Ann Arbor version called La Pita Fresh sounds more like a vacation than a new business. He’s rented a “flat” (as he calls it in somewhat British-inflected English) here and enjoys walking through campus. “I love this city. We opened our doors two weeks ago and have been serving 150 customers a day.”
Chammout opened his Dearborn place in 1990 after getting an MBA from American University in Beirut, another city he loves. Asked to characterize Lebanese food, he explains that it depends whether you’re talking about rich people’s or poor people’s food. The meat dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine–kaftas and meat on skewers–were brought in by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which occupied Lebanon for 500 years. Then there’s falafel. “Everyone wants to claim it, but I insist it’s Lebanese. I raise my hand on this one.”
The vegetable- and grain-based dishes, he says, were what the poor ate. “Here’s how the fattoush salad was born. People were very poor. They used to break the tomato and cucumber into pieces and salvage what was good. And they would toast the bread and add it to make it go farther. They used sumac [a lemony-tasting herb] because they often had no lemon. Add the dried mint, and you’ve got a fattoush salad that’s very healthy.”
His mujadra is a southern Lebanese dish of “baked lentils, spices, and cracked wheat. Wrap it up with onions, tomatoes, lettuce–I call it a powerful superfood. And tabbouli is a superfood as well.”
He bakes two kinds of bread, a paper-thin pita and a thick oregano-spiced flatbread called man-ushi. “The beauty of this cuisine is it’s all natural ingredients. You have to prepare it from scratch.” He also offers a long menu of freshly made juices and smoothies.
Chammout is not worried about the competition posed by the impending opening of La Marsa just down Liberty. “It’s two different styles. He has full-service dining. I have grab and go. If you want lamb chops, go there. My food is very fresh, fast, and affordable.”
La Pita Fresh, 529 E. Liberty, 997-7482. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. www.lapitafresh.com