Cowboy bars and burritos, check. Wine tasting rooms and steakhouses of course. Italian restaurants and homemade bakeries, though. These all make the Santa Ynez Valley go round.
But falafel and shawarma sold by a Syrian family in a billiard room with country music on the radio and sports programs on TV? This is the everyday scene at Santa Ynez Billiards & Café, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, blending distinctive spices, authentic cooking and genuine smiles with that satisfying feeling of stumbling upon a secret hiding in plain sight.
“We’ve always wanted to open our own restaurant,” explains Amal Abdulaziz, as a batch of yogurt gurgles in the kitchen. “But we waited for our kids to get older.” The mother of three – 34 year old son is a Boeing engineer; 19-year-old daughter has just graduated from Santa Ynez High and attends SBCC – runs the restaurant with her husband, Riyad “Ray” Abdulaziz, while their 28-year-old son, Matt Abdulaziz, runs the front-of-house operations, namely the walk-up orders, small bar and sporadic billiards rentals.
They opened in 2015 at this prominent location on Edison Street—the main gateway to the city of Santa Ynez—behind the secure veil of a pool hall selling beer, wine and a small menu of American bar food, with a handful of Middle Eastern specialties. The latter didn’t do well at first, but then Matt offered to order the chicken shawarma if the guests weren’t happy. Suddenly the biggest question from the customer was “Where’s the chicken shawarma wrap?” and diners also tuned in to the rest of the menu, including baba ganoush, tabouli, and lamb kabob, all handcrafted by the couple.
“They’re significantly more popular,” Matt now said of these items. “We sell an ungodly amount of lentil soup.” They also still offer burgers, sandwiches, salads, chicken wings, and one of the better tri-tip sandwiches out there — rubbed with a blend of Syrian and Santa Maria spices, grilled over red oak, then sliced into delectable, wafer-thin sheets. Today, very few people play pool. “It’s more of a restaurant now,” Matt said. “All our business is food.”
Originally from Homs, Syria, the Abdulaziz family immigrated to Michigan in 1991, where Riyadh ran a Middle Eastern spice business and Amal worked as a waitress. In 2015, they were lured to the Santa Ynez Valley by family members who own many of the region’s liquor stores, including the Rio Market across the street from their restaurant.
Both Amal and Riyad started cooking with their respective grandmothers at a young age, and they looked back to that time to develop their recipes. “We put those together and we came up with this delicious food,” said Amal.
Her descriptor is appropriate. The salads I’ve tried are crunchy with just-plucked freshness: the tabouli parsley chopped by hand so recently that it remained stiff, with cracked wheat as a texture kick; the fattoush’s mix of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers is downright refreshing thanks to the sumac/za’atar/lemon juice/garlic/black pepper dressing and crunchy pita breads.
The wraps are wrapped tightly in supple pita bread—purchased monthly from a Lebanese bakery in Ramona—in tight tubes that fit perfectly in your mouth, making for a neat meal that delivers layers of savory and sour in every bite. The falafel, to which I added hummus, showed golf-ball-sized balls of fried chickpea and fava bean dough, while the lamb shawarma came alive in the multi-spice baharat seasoning. The key to both wraps are the house pickled turnips and Persian cucumbers that give each chomp a sharp click.
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Compared to many shawarma shops that stack slices of meat on a vertical rotisserie to be shaved onto your pita bread, Riyadh sauté each one individually. “The problem with the stick is that it dries out so quickly,” Amal said of that traditional preparation. “This is all made to order and it’s juicier.”
For kabobs, I chose chicken, which is probably the most accessible Mediterranean dish on the menu: plain brisket, gently seasoned, lightly charred, and served with an addictive buttery rice pilaf, a few sheets of pita bread, red onion strips, and a side of garlic paste. I chose the spicy garlic paste, an off-menu option that adds jalapeño to the mix, although it’s really still the potent garlic that gives this condiment kick. This dish also made excellent leftovers two days later.
Credit: Carl Perry
All that for a modest price: about $6 for soups and apps, $10 for wraps and salads, and $15 or so for plates. “It’s significantly cheaper than anywhere else around,” Matt said. Meanwhile, the wine list is all-Santa Barbara County—few restaurants can truly claim that—and the beers lean locally with bigger brands, too, enjoyed by regulars through the specially-priced mug club.
Given its success – just to be clear, this place is no secret to many Santa Ynez Valley residents, especially those in the restaurant and wine industry – the Abdulaziz family occasionally flirts with the idea of scrapping the billiards, moving the bar , adding more tables, and delivering a more refined level of service, which would be Amal’s long-term dream. But that means more employees, higher prices and a different atmosphere.
“For the people of the valley, this is a place where the family comes together,” Amal said. “They come with their children, who can play pool or table football while having a glass of wine or beer.”
Matt said they will stick with this format for now. “People know us as the really funky place with hidden gems,” he said. “It works a bit.”
1000 Edison St., Santa Ynez; (805) 697-7109; santaynezbilliardsandcafe.com
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