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 the go-to grocery store for Downtowners and a prime picnic supply stop too.
Phoenicia is anything but basic, however, if you need 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. If you ask us, their house-mixed seasoning blends ARE essentials! Try the za’atar or the Greek spices — they brighten up just about any savory dish and make cooking an adventure.
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 hidden 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 farmers markets
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, it’s the quality and variety of Phoenicia’s beer and wine selection, not necessarily the quantity, that’s intriguing.
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. 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.
Coffee bar & baker
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.
Prepared foods, deli and gril
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.
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.
And last but not least is the Lebanese staple, the pita.
Phoenicia is famous for their pita bread conveyor belt that serves up piping hot loaves daily. Like manna from heaven, there are more than 29,000 pitas that emerge from a massive conveyer at Phoenicia’s Westheimer store (aka the mother ship), baked in an oven that ranges from 800-1200 degrees Fahrenheit. High heat is necessary for obtaining the perfect amount of pita “puff.” The bread is then packaged and transported to the downtown store so customers can load up on the fresh, pillowy-soft pitas.
Their daily production of pita, Mediterranean flat breads and pies cannot be found anywhere else in Houston–or in the country for that matter. They also offer a wide variety of artisan European style breads every day to make the perfect sandwich or to accompany any meal.
This story by Amber Ambrose for Downtown Magazine’s Fall 2016 issue has been slightly modified.