By Steve Fohl
Soloman Khdair makes one hell of a gyro, and he knows it.He stands across the counter from me, immaculately constructing one of the aforementioned delights while watching an impressive line of curious clientele swell behind me, and smiles.
“I choose the best quality gyro meat on the market and I make my tzatziki sauce from scratch,” he says proudly. “That’s why my gyro’s the best.”
I am skeptical, if only because making the “best” anything is a certifiably hard thing to accomplish.
I walk outside to eat my gyro (I like eating outside on sidewalks) and notice the sign to Khdair’s new restaurant, Babylon Café, features the slogan “World Famous Gyros.”
Still, I am uncertain because the world, by almost all definitions, is humongous and being deemed “world” famous would subsequently be a humongous task.
But as I bite into Khdair’s gyro, the savory spice of the lamb meat mixes with the coolness of the homemade tzakziki sauce, my incredulousness fades and I am certain of only one thing: this is the greatest food I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve had Skyline chili, Nutella, and biscuits and gravy from Dairy Queen before, so that’s saying something).
The son of a construction worker, Khdair was born in pre-Saddam Hussein Kuwait City, a picturesque hamlet of about 369,000 people nestled snuggly around the Arabian Gulf. It was in Kuwait City where Khdair acquired an appreciation for the culinary arts.
“I grew up as a child loving to cook,” Khdair says fondly. “And I was exposed to a lot of Middle Eastern and Greek food, as well as Indian and other spicy, Eastern foods, in Kuwait City. I incorporate all of these influences into my cooking.”
Nearly twenty years ago, Khdair moved to the Kuwait City of North America, Milwaukee, where he worked at a family-operated Greek restaurant.
Confidently armed with the ability to cook gyros, Khdair flew the coop three years later and started his own business in Oshkosh, Wis. He opened Babylon Café on Main Street in Richmond just last week.
“I came here to escape the cold weather,” Khdair says with a laugh. “Not to mention I just love the Bluegrass state and horses.”
Khdair’s specialty is, of course, the ambiguously-pronounced gyro. I’ve heard over 200 variations of this mysteriously-said word since I was born: including GUY-ro, YI-ro, JY-ro, GEAR-o, JEER-o and simply hero. I once had a friend who ordered two GUY-rosses. I say “once” because I immediately de-friended him for pronouncing them as such. Khdair, however, assured me that gyro is pronounced YEE-ro.
Finally, some closure. Thank you, Soloman.
Aside from the world famous gyros, Babylon Café offers a varied (and relatively healthy) menu that includes shawarma, falafel, hummus, sambosa, dolma (stuffed graped leaves) and Greek salad.
Ethnic drinks include hot mint tea, Babylon tea, Babylon Chai, Turkish coffee and Ale-8-One.
And for those who like to live as far away from the edge as possible, Khdair will (probably reluctantly) make you a cheeseburger or a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
A key selling point is Babylon’s very reasonably priced menu, which is highlighted by the Babylon Lunch Platter – gyro (lamb or chicken), rice, salad, dolma, bread and a free cup of mint tea all for $5.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Khdair’s restaurant, however, is its hours. Babylon Café is open until 1:00 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, making it one of the few establishments on Main Street willing to peddle foodstuff to inebriates late into the weekend nights.
Clearly, Khdair wants to see Eastern students frequent his café. He sees it as “a cozy place where students can come, sit, eat healthy and enjoy a nice cup of tea.”
Already, students are responding.
“I thought it was amazingly good,” senior Spanish/nursing major Jacinda Jacquemin said. “It’s nice to have a little bit of variety downtown as far as ethnic restaurants go.”
“It’s literally the best place in Richmond to get some dolma,” junior computer science major Justin Brandenburg noted absurdly, as it is probably the only place in Richmond to get some dolma.
As I thank Khdair for the magnificent gyro and head out the door to write a sterling review of his establishment, he stops me and smiles.
“Tell them my love and passion for this food is what makes it different,” Khdair says. “Even after 20 years, I’m still the one in the kitchen making each and every gyro!”
Consider it done, my friend.