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Mediterranean Cafe, a campus-area restaurant located at 625 State Street for 22 years, is our next stop for Meatless Madison, a series featuring vegetarian and/or vegan dishes in the Madison area.
Before I can even take my seat at a table in the cafe, owner Faycal Belakhdar sets a hot mug in front of me. Expecting black coffee, I take a sip of the beverage and discover an herbaceous, sweet tea. "What is this?" I ask. "It's mint, Earl Gray tea and sugar," Belakhdar says with his signature smile that appears slowly out from under a thick mustache. "I'm from North Africa where we use mint and when I came here I discovered Earl Gray tea, so I decided to put them together."
Originally from Algeria, Belakhdar moved to Madison in 1980. Although he has a degree in law — and planned to study when he arrived here — his visa did not allow him to go to school. Unable to speak English, a friend helped him get a job as a dishwasher at Athens, Madison's first Greek restaurant, which has since closed. "I started doing the dishes but one day I told the boss, ‘I have a degree, I want to contribute more to this place,'" Belakhdar says. "So he started showing me how to make food."
Belakhdar worked at Athens for four years before moving on to now-closed Amy's Cafe where he got to create dishes and manage the staff. "I don't have a background in food, but I was curious about it and thought ‘I have to make the best of my life,'" Belakhdar says. "So I watched TV, I read about food, I improvised and I created some dishes."
After 12 years at Amy's, Belakhdar opened Mediterranean Cafe on November 1, 1996. "We call it Mediterranean food and the base is also Middle Eastern food," Belakhdar says. "We have a rotation of specials every day, and they are from different parts of the Mediterranean. Where I'm from on Fridays it's tradition to have couscous, so that is our special on Fridays." A favorite special is the vegetarian spinach pie, or Spanakopita, made with spinach, feta cheese, eggs and dill and wrapped in phyllo dough. Belakhdar learned how to make it from his Greek boss at Athens, "And I try to make it the same," he says.
On the regular menu, the vegetarian falafel platter is consistently a favorite. Served with rice pilaf and a salad of crunchy lettuce and cucumbers, the falafel are served with pita bread ("Don't throw the extra away!" Belakhdar says, "We have a farmer who comes to collect the bread to feed to his goats.") and a side of tangy tahini and hot sauces. Mediterranean Cafe also serves a hearty vegetarian lentil soup.
"It's important to have vegetarian food," Belakhdar says. "It's good to be fair, and we want to please our customers." It's clear that customers are at the front of everything that Belakhdar does at Mediterranean Cafe. "We have people who come automatically the day of the vegetarian dish that they like and they call and say ‘I'm coming at 12:30 can you save me a piece?' And we do save them a piece," Belakhdar says.
Belakhdar takes pride in Mediterranean Cafe being a place where everyone feels at home. "I'm very proud that in my restaurant we have people from all over the world. We try to speak different languages with our customers. Of course my language is French, but I speak Arabic and I speak Spanish," Belakhdar says. "People who studied French in high school who are my age like to come here and practice their words." But Belakhdar and the staff at Mediterranean Cafe also accomplish this through the food.
"Coming from a poor country and a poor family, comfort food was always the best. I always try to make food that makes people happy. Simple food," Belakhdar says. "I do this from the bottom of my heart."
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