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  • Tara Crutchfield

Street Cafe

Over six thousand miles, an ocean, and the Sahara Desert separate Lakeland, Florida, from Egypt. Thanks to twenty-year Swan City resident Marianne Garas, you don’t have to travel so far for a taste of the Middle East. “The inspiration came really from our home,” said Garas, owner of Lakeland’s only Egyptian restaurant. “We have a large family, and we love to gather around food.” This celebration of family and food evolved into a desire to share that with her community.


With the encouragement of her three daughters, Michaela, Daniella, and Gabriella, Marianne approached the owners of Charlie’s Mini Donuts and Coffee about sharing their space for her Egyptian café. The owners were happy to share their bakery space, and Marianne began preparations to open. “We thought perhaps small beginnings could lead to something bigger,” Garas said.


Street Cafe first shared a taste of the Middle East with Lakeland in mid-September. Fresh whole foods and flavors including coriander, garlic, and onion, are a hallmark in Middle Eastern fare, with a distinctly Egyptian ‘little kick’ of extra flavor. “Here, we tried to keep a palate that’s universal in the Middle East so that people would be familiar,” Garas said. Hence their name, ‘Street Cafe,’ an homage to delectable street food.



The Egyptian kitchen has become a family affair – a happy surprise for Marianne. Her two oldest, Daniella and Gabriella, now in college, opted to help their mom realize her dream, even rearranging their class schedules to work at the cafe. “That was a bonus,” Marianne said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”


Both daughters love seeing their mother thrive in her new role. “She’s happy with every meal she makes. It’s not work for her because she enjoyed it so much, and she’s wanted to do it for so long,” Daniella said. “You can see the love and care in her eyes. When she serves, it’s from her heart.”


For Gabriella, sharing their culture with Lakeland has been a joy. She said, “Growing up, we were the only Egyptians we’d ever met in Lakeland, so we get to share that with a city that doesn’t get to see or taste that a lot – and food’s a great way to do that.”


Marianne smiled and said, “They are every bit a part of it as I am. I’m just so pleased that they’re here.”


Nothing ‘Bedah’ Than This


For those uninitiated to Middle Eastern cuisine, Marianne recommends starting with the Shawarma. “It caters to every palate,” she said. “Together, all the flavors come alive.” The dish, put simply, is well-spiced minced meat encased in warm dough. At Street Cafe, guests can order it with a choice of beef and lamb or chicken. The tang of yogurt sauce and red onions with the savory meat balance the dish, which is paired with tomato and pomegranate bulgar pilaf and Salata Baladi, a cucumber, onion, and tomato side salad dressed with lemon juice and salt. “It is our staple salad in Egypt,” said the Street Cafe owner. 


A unique dish to Street Cafe you’d be hard-pressed to find locally is Shakshuka. “You could find that in Egypt. Every country has its version,” Marianne said. This dish shines among an already scintillating menu. Served in a cast iron skillet with fresh pita bread, a delightfully acidic tomato and onion sauce is the plinth elevating well-spiced meat (choice of beef and lamb or chicken – we had both) and cracked eggs. The meal is topped with a creamy yogurt sauce, cilantro, chives, and toasted sesame. Its flavors were sharp, rich, and soft. Street Cafe’s Shakshuka was a small luxury I felt grateful to indulge in on an otherwise lusterless Tuesday.


While the food may taste and present opulently, there’s no great cost to your diet to enjoy it. “That’s one good thing about Middle Eastern food – it’s all whole foods. There’s no processed anything.” In fact, Marianne does not stock a single bottle of oil in her Street Cafe kitchen.


I’ll spare you a novel on the delights that were Mish with Cucumber, Bedah, and their holiday special of Hawawshi, minced lamb pressed in a pita with a pleasant heat, which Marianne described aptly as “crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.” Honestly, I recommend everything on the menu.


What I will carry on about is my love affair with dates that started over their Bellah. Savory toasted pita hugs fresh dates that have been slowly simmered and caramelized overnight and tossed with almonds. Marianne described it as having a buttery sweet taste. The warm Egyptian dessert sandwich almost echoed the filling in a slice of pecan pie, and I was shocked to hear the toothsome treat contained no added sugar. I’ve eaten no less than 50 dates – dreaming of Bellah – since that day.


To wash down your meal, the Lakeland café offers Shay, a traditional loose-leaf black tea steeped with fresh mint, and Limonatta, a fresh lemon and mint drink served by the glass.


The café will add falafel to the menu, a nod to their vegan and vegetarian patrons. Meat on any menu item can be substituted with falafel. Takeout and catering are available as well. 


Hostess with the Mostess


If not for the praiseworthy food, visit Street Cafe for the earnestness and hospitality – an intentional aspect of the dining experience. “My whole desire for this – and it’s kind of the atmosphere in our home – come and eat, be comfortable. Come as you are and eat as much as you want,” Marianne Garas said. “Hospitality is very important in our culture and if you traveled to Egypt, you would find that the least, give everything.”


The entire meal – from conversations with Marianne and her daughters to the last bite of Shakshuka can be summed up as comfortable. If you told me their food was seasoned with sincerity as if it were a tangible spice, a secret ingredient in a little jar tucked away in the cabinet – I’d believe you.

 

Photography by Amy Sexson

 

Street Cafe
Hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. – 1:30 (ish) p.m.
1023 E County Rd 540A, Lakeland
(863) 329-8575
FB @street.cafe.lakeland
IG @street.cafe.lakeland

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