Barton Springs hidden gem brings true Lebanese cuisine to Austin
Watch Charlie Rajeh turning lamb on the grill or tossing fattoush, and you’d never guess he didn't cook a thing until he was 18.
When he moved to Austin from Lebanon to attend UT in 1989, he had no tolerance for the McDonald’s and Chinese buffets his peers were visiting.
"I couldn’t stand it,” he says. “I never touched food in my life, never cooked in my life. But I started calling my mom [and] every time we’d spend a couple hours on the phone and I’d say, ‘How should I cook this?’ and ‘What should I do here?’”
After working at nightclubs on Sixth Street as a bouncer and barback (including one night as Willie Nelson’s on-the-spot backstage bodyguard), Rajeh began cooking professionally.
He started a catering business in San Antonio, which he still operates, and for 10 years, he owned an Obee’s sandwich shop on Anderson Lane. In addition to the Italian sandwiches for which the franchise is known, he featured a “secret Arabic menu,” which became more popular than the other offerings.
In July 2014, Rajeh decided to open a food truck in Austin called Beirut so he could cook and serve the type of Lebanese food he grew up eating. He saw a need for it in the Austin market, and he noticed that many of the places serving similar dishes make the “watered down” version.
“They always try to make it so Americanized,” says Rajeh. “They’re popular — I’m not saying they’re not — but it’s not my deal.”
Tucked away on Barton Springs Road and Jessie Street (in the lot across from Juliet), Beirut attracts plenty of regulars — many of Lebanese heritage. They come for the bright citrus-laced tabbouleh, rose water lemonade, shawarma and gyro wraps made from freshly grilled meats, silky smooth hummus, and baba-ghanouj topped with sumac and Lebanese-style pickles.
Preserved vegetables are a big part of Lebanese cooking, though not one often seen in Austin. Before coming to the U.S., Rajeh’s family moved from Beirut out to the mountains during the civil war. “The entire neighborhood made everything from scratch to prepare themselves for the wintertime,” he remembers. “Everything is seasonal, so they’d can tomatoes and all sorts of jams and figs.”
Rather than shaving the meat off a spit, Rajeh uses the fresher approach of cooking each serving to order. “You have to have a high volume or the meat sits forever [on the spit],” he says. “I don’t like the idea of turning it off and turning it back on. It won’t be as fresh. So that’s why I decided to do it on the grill, but it’s the same idea.”
His shish-tawook wrap features garlic-marinated chicken, fries, tomatoes, pickles, and tour (garlic whipped with olive oil), which is wrapped in a pita and toasted. His falafel is some of the crunchiest in town, served with fresh parsley, mint, and tomato. An extra punch comes from radishes and pickles, and, most importantly, traditional tahini sauce is served in lieu of tzatziki.
“Some customers come argue with me and say ‘This is not falafel!’” says Rajeh with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Believe me, this is the way it’s supposed to be.’”