For Sanaa Abourezk, the road to Sioux Falls, South Dakota was a circuitous one. Having been born in war-torn Syria, her family knew the value of education and after she completed high school they sent her to California where she earned a Master’s Degree in food nutrition at Cal Poly Pomona.
But Abourezk’s real passion was cooking healthy Mediterranean food, much of which is vegan and/or gluten-free.
“There were no vegetarian places in town,” she says. But would her idea work in meat-and-potatoes country like Sioux Falls? Well-meaning friends were direct, letting her know that she was “out of her mind” to try such a restaurant here. After all, people weren’t used to the sort of flavors she was offering: tahini, coriander, Aleppo pepper, and tamarind. Say what?
If there was one thing that Abourezk had learned throughout her life it was not to be put off by a challenge. So, in 2004, she took the plunge and opened her restaurant in a small retail space located in a fairly undeveloped area on the city, away from the prime restaurant area of Phillips Avenue.
The dishes are served buffet-style, which Abourezk points out “encourages people to try different foods.” And indeed they do. They line up to fill their plates with Shish Tawook made with chicken breast cooked in red sauce with cumin, mustard, garlic and sesame seed paste served on basmatic rice pilaf and choice of salad. Or they may choose a Fatayer (think Mediterranean calzone) filled with ground beef cooked in pomegranate molasses and chili sauce. Even desserts are prepared from her own special recipes such as chocolate baklava or gluten-free date bar.
Part of her success, however, is Abourezk herself, whose warm personality and attention to detail and customer service have endeared her to this community. “My customers are like my family…they bring me flowers, give me a hug, and say prayers for my family back home,” she says.
While lunch includes a set menu, dinner is different every time; prepared with many of the recipes she has included in her books.
“I have my dream job,” she adds with a smile, having created something in Sioux Falls that most thought was impossible. Still the future looks bright for Abourezk, who is now thinking about franchising.
Sanaa’s is open limited hours:
Monday through Thursday: 10:30 am- 3:00 pm
Friday and Saturday: 11:00 am- 8:00 pm