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Albany Park Haven for Americanized Lebanese Restaurant

Colorful rugs hang inside Semiramis, adding a beautiful accent to the tan walls. (Photo by Madeline DePetto)

Tan walls lined with decorative hanging rugs and mirrors trace the perimeter of Semiramis. Two long couches with patterned cushions and pillows add a homey feel to this Lebanese restaurant located at 4639 N. Kedzie Ave. in Albany Park. Owner Joseph Abraham takes phone orders, cooks or goes into the restaurant to wait on or bus tables. One of Abraham’s friendly waitresses greets customers with a warm, “Hello! How are you today?” as they enter to taste some of Semiramis’ Lebanese cuisine.

Abraham opened Semiramis in 2005 after realizing that Albany Park would be the proper neighborhood to attract a culturally-diverse clientele who would enjoy an Americanized Lebanese menu.

Immediately after immigrating from Lebanon to the United States in 1980, Abraham gained experience in the culinary field by landing a job at Chicago’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he spent the next 15 years. While working there, Abraham learned how to Americanize the traditional Lebanese recipes he brought from his homeland.

Abraham wanted to share those recipes with Chicago, so he left the Ritz Carlton and opened his first Lebanese restaurant, ZouZou’s in Lakeview.  After four years, ZouZou’s closed. While ZouZou’s was in business, Abraham had bought ingredients from small Middle Eastern food markets in Albany Park. That sparked the idea that Albany Park would be an ideal, culturally-diverse location for a Lebanese restaurant.

“This is more of [a Middle Eastern] destination for shopping and eating,” Abraham said. “It’s a lot of Middle Eastern businesses but a really diverse neighborhood.”

In 2005, Semiramis, named after the Queen of Assyria, was erected in Albany Park, across from the Brown Line Kedzie stop.

In the late 1900s, Albany Park became the destination for many Asian/Middle Eastern and Hispanic immigrants. According to the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, the neighborhood’s population today is 46 percent Hispanic, 27 percent White, 18 percent Asian, 4 percent African-American and 4 percent multiracial. Because of this diverse neighborhood, Abraham adds an American flare to each dish.

For example, in Abraham’s tabbouleh, a salad of bulgar wheat, onions, tomatoes and parsley in an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, his recipe does not call for as much bulgar wheat as traditional Middle Eastern chefs use. Instead, Abraham adds extra parsley, as it creates a more “American” flavor, he said. Similarly, unlike in Lebanon, Abraham chose to include rosemary in his chawarma marinade for chicken. In his experience with American cooking while working at the Ritz Carlton, he said rosemary’s woody flavor compliments chicken.

Semiramis is not a family-run business; Abraham has hired his own staff since he opened the restaurant in 2005.  Semiramis hostess and waitress Katie Royce spoke very highly of Abraham.

“He’s very good to us,” she said.

Michelle Richards lives in New York but always makes a trip to Semiramis when she is in the Chicago area. She likes the atmosphere, healthy food and reasonable prices. Richards has been a customer for about six months.

Abraham also noticed a slight increase in customer traffic during month-long Ramadan which, this year, was celebrated from Aug. 1st through the 29th. During this holiday, Middle Easterners fast after sunrise and eat after sunset, and many chose to eat at Semiramis for dinner.

On average, Abraham said Semiramis would feed an extra 15 to 20 people per night during the holiday. Customers were looking for heartier meals, such as braised or stuffed lamb dishes, to keep them full and satisfied during the daily fasting periods. While not particular to Ramadan, some of Abraham’s most popular menu items have been the vegetarian plate and fattoush, which is a vegetable salad tossed with toasted pita bread and mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and sumac.

Semiramis’ falafel special includes falafel, eggplant, cabbage, cucumber pickles, tomatoes, hummus, tahini sauce and harrisa in a wrap. (Photo by Madeline DePetto)

Just as he did when ZouZou’s was in business, Abraham only buys individual ingredients, not full dishes, from local Middle Eastern grocery stores such as Cleopatra Meat & Grocery, Al Khayyam Bakery and Sanabel Bakery.

“We do everything in the house, we don’t buy anything from outside so everything is freshly-made,” Abraham said.

Additionally, many dishes are meatless, so Semiramis is vegetarian-friendly. Chicago Magazine awarded Abraham’s falafel–deep-fried chick pea croquettes–best in Chicago in 2009. In the same year, Time Out Chicago voted Semiramis the best small plates and appetizers. The restaurant was also featured on Chicagoland’s restaurant-reviewing program “Check, Please.”

Semiramis most likely received media attention through word of mouth, customer recommendations or from one medium to another, Abraham said. He was very proud to have been recognized by the media, and said he considered those awards to be “payoff for the hard work.”

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