When Bilal Deiri was growing up in the northwest part of San Antonio, having moved here as a toddler with his American-born mother and Syrian father, it was the edge of the city.
As the neighborhoods grew in the 1980s and after, the Middle Eastern community there remained small and tight-knit. “That’s changed a lot, too,” said the 31-year old Deiri.
Today, his family’s Mediterranean restaurant, Pasha Mediterranean Grill, occupies a former Tex-Mex site at the gateway of a busy mile-long corridor known for its variety of food offerings, from the Far East to the Middle East and beyond.
The stretch of Wurzbach Road between Interstate 10 and Fredericksburg Road is not the only place in San Antonio to find authentic international cuisines, but could be one of the most dense and enduring so far, as diverse as the community around it.
“You’d have to be blind to not notice you are in a different place when you drive there,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), whose district includes the area. “It’s place with capital P. The demographic reality of that one-mile stretch – and I’d venture to say within a one-mile radius of there – is palpably different than other demographic realities around town.”
The area's development has had much to do with its nearest institutional neighbors: USAA and the University of Texas at San Antonio to the north, the South Texas Medical Center to the west and suburban neighborhoods to the east, all of which force large volumes of traffic through the corridor and attract people from other countries for work and education.
“What they created is something really beautiful," Pelaez said. "They live, work, play, thrive, and worship, and they are doing all of that within a tiny radius of a geographic footprint there.”
Deiri and his family are witnesses to the bustle and congestion in the area as well as to the growth of a population that looks demographically more and more like the global world in which we now live. The area roughly encompassing District 8 is one of the city's most ethnically diverse, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 American Community Survey, with more than 40% of Bexar County's African-born population and nearly 33% of its Asian-born – including the Middle East – population.
Deiri’s family purchased the distinctive former Taco Cabana and Sombrero Rosa building on Wurzbach and opened Pasha in 2009. The following year, the Deiris bought the adjacent International Center building, primarily to ensure adequate parking for the popular restaurant.
As Pasha’s success took off, leading to three other locations around town, the International Center grew as well. It now features a hookah bar and café, Naara, and Baklövâh Bakery & Sweets. Upstairs, the Silk Road Gallery, owned by Majid Mehrafza consigns and deals in art, antiques, lamps and rugs, much of it from his home country of Iran.
Wallace Pope, who works at USAA in information technology, visits Naara daily. He told the Rivard Report he stops in as much for the conversation as the food. “It’s like a family,” Pope said, as he greeted Deiri, then sat with two friends at their favorite patio table.
“It’s interesting seeing people learn about different cultures and trying different foods,” Deiri said. “We are exposing people to different stuff. It’s nice to see when we’re getting along – which is most of the time.”
Wurzbach Road has long been a destination for international food, including a Golden Wok restaurant that opened in 1987 as the city’s only dim sum house. A Vietnamese eatery, Berni, is there, plus Jerusalem Grill, Fujiya Japanese Garden, and Indian restaurant Bombay Hall.
A newer addition to the area is the boutique-style Al Madina Meat Market. Mohamed Makinsi and his brother Mustapha, who came to Texas from Morocco 14 years ago, opened the market on Wurzbach in 2013. They process and sell halal meats – chicken, lamb, and goat butchered according to Islamic law.
"[This is] where most of the ethnic people and the refugees live, plus we get a lot of medical people coming in like doctors and nurses," Mohamed Makinsi said. "We have people come here who are from all over the world – Germans, French, Central Americans, Africans, Asians, Persians – with all their different accents, languages, recipes and styles of cooking."
Those different styles of cooking are vibrantly represented at an international food market named for the folk-tale character Ali Baba.
Ashraf Nahil, a Palestinian who came to San Antonio to attend school 31 years ago, used to face a six-hour round-trip to Houston on weekends to find the foods from his homeland he and his family enjoyed. He decided San Antonio needed a store with a bakery, produce, and seasonal items people from around the world – not just from the Middle East – could call their own.
In opening Ali Baba International Food Market in 1999, Nahil chose the location on Wurzbach because it lies within a triangle formed by the Islamic Center of San Antonio, the Barshop Jewish Community Center, and a Lebanese church, St. George Maronite Church. In Ali Baba's original 3,000-square-foot space, Nahil stocked foods from every corner of the planet, with halal meats and fresh produce, and was the first to introduce fresh-baked pita bread to San Antonio.
Today, the 25,000-square-foot grocery store offers a sumptuous array of offerings – multihued rows of dry and canned goods, unique frozen foods, dairy items, a meat market, and a bakery that produces 18 different kinds of bread by 8 a.m. daily.
The produce section sells 3,000 pounds of persimmons in a week and includes plump dates and five varieties of eggplant. Among Ali Baba's offerings are fresh green pistachios, sausages from Bosnia, and milk chocolate from Russia. Prior to religious holidays, the lines of shoppers get especially long.
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“The worst mistake you can make is to order what you yourself like,” Nahil said of learning to run an international food market. It’s hard work finding and importing all the foods his customers desire, so the father of six puts in long hours. “It’s easy to start a business in the U.S., but the hardest thing is to keep it going,” he said.
To better communicate with his customers, Nahil learned to speak Farsi and Urdu, in addition to the three other languages – Arabic, English and Spanish – he spoke as a young man. On the day he gave the Rivard Report a tour, customers and employees approached Nahil to ask questions in their native tongues. He regularly employs 48 workers, 20 of them refugees from places like Burma.
Ali Baba customers – both U.S.- and foreign-born – come from across the city. One is Josephine Toundamje, a 47-year-old grandmother who came to San Antonio in 2010 from a refugee camp in the Republic of Cameroon after being ousted from her homeland of Chad in central Africa.
Another shopper is a woman who declined to give her name for fear of putting her family in Iran at risk. “No one back home knows we are Baptist,” she said. Since arriving in the city with her husband and two sons more than four years ago, she has shopped at Ali Baba twice a month, buying flour, corn, rice, okra, and meat.
As the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Refugee Services that supports thousands of local refugees, Margaret Constantino knows well the diverse nature of the Wurzbach corridor.
“It’s the best food in town, it really is,” Constantino said of the restaurants in the area where she regularly dines with her staff. “I noticed that these businesses are attracting a lot of homegrown Americans and not just refugees and immigrants from those countries, which is cool, right?"
The glue that binds the area together is its sense of community, Constantino said. And a major part of that is food – that great unifier across cultures – and the power of breaking bread together, whether it's a pita or tortilla.
“I mean, who doesn’t love to eat and try new things?" Constantino said. "The spices are different from anything I ever grew up with. I never had hummus until five years ago, and now it’s just part of what we do. So I think we all win, and that’s the neat thing about cultural integration."