When you hear the word Bethlehem, you begin to think of shepherds, angels and stars. But, I am giving you a different story, one that after reading will have you making your way to Bethlehem, a restaurant and grocery in the Star City of Roanoke.
The unassuming building at 1613 Williamson Road has held an assortment of restaurants and businesses, but now boasts Halal food. Once inside you will find a grocery store to the left with lots of miscellaneous items ranging from canned meats, pickled vegetables and spices to Turkish delight and shisha. To the right is the restaurant with a few tables and booths for diners. Orders are taken at the counter where the wall is full of pictures of popular Mediterranean dishes, including chicken and kufta (ground beef or lamb) kebabs, lamb chops and rice, and of course, falafel.
Osama Amli, a native of Palestine, recently was invited by his friends to join Bethlehem Restaurant and Grocery, as co-owner. The trained chef was living in Kentucky at the time, and about three months ago he decided to make the move to Roanoke for the opportunity. When speaking to Amli, automatically you detect his enthusiasm for the food. My family and I have eaten at this location several times in the past, so this trip we allowed Amli to select our meal. Our teenage daughter already had made up her mind and we did not attempt to sway her. For those of you out there with teenage children, you understand. He selected Whole Grilled Chicken. Note: should you choose to order this dish, allow an hour for preparation. Everything is made fresh. I don’t know about you reader, but I prefer my chicken to be thoroughly cooked!
While waiting for our main course to finish, Amli brought us an appetizer to share – Kibbeh. Please thank Wikipedia.com for the following definition of this dish: made of bulgur, minced onions and finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat, or camel meat with Middle Eastern spices. Other types of kibbeh may be shaped into balls or patties, and baked, cooked in broth, or served raw. Precisely! It is reminiscent of a large dumpling that has been deep fried and filled with a mixture of ground beef and lamb. The crispy outer “shell” is sweet and after reading the definition, it is definitely the bulgur, or cracked wheat batter causing that sweetness. The dumpling looks heavy but it isn't, and while it is mild in flavor it is served with a side of tzatziki for dipping.
Amli wrapped our meal in a foil pan when it was ready because we were bringing it home. The pan also contained thick cut French Fries, salad, pita bread and sauces including mayonnaise, hummus and baba ghanouj. We eagerly open our meal when we arrive home, like children unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. We note immediately that we have a whole spatchcock, or butterflied chicken, and our home is filled with smells of spices and charcoal. “The meat is marinated with only two or three things; you can easily make this for yourself at home,” Amli tells me when I later ask about the preparation. The chicken has its skin, which is not flabby at all, and you can taste the citrusy marinade throughout each tender bite.
Amli calls the vegetable dish served with the chicken, salad, but it is actually a pickled red cabbage slaw with bits of iceberg lettuce throughout. The cabbage is very fresh and acidity and mimics a palate cleanser. The meal of grilled chicken, cabbage and fries works well because everything served with the chicken has picked up the wonderful charcoal flavor. There is definitely no way to eat this dish and keep your hands clean. You really have to get your hands on it to appreciate it!
Chicken Shawarma, my teenage daughter’s choice, was well received, and her take on her meal is as follows: “There is plenty of chicken to fill the wrap and the meat is tender and seasoned well. The addition of pickles add a nice acidity and the onions add a crunchy change of texture. The pita itself holds up well. It held everything inside together without spilling out. The tahini that is served on the side adds a creaminess when dipped that really ties everything together. The size is perfect for a dinner sized portion and is served with a side of fries.”
Most ingredients are imported from overseas especially “halal items such as the chicken, lamb and goat,” says Amli. “Some items are purchased locally, the ones that make sense.” He also informs me they cook everything from scratch and everyone in the kitchen cooks.
The restaurant is usually busy all day on Monday and Thursday, but there is not any particular time that can be pinpointed as the busiest. The owners also cater lunches and events for over 200 refugees in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech. Bethlehem has become extremely popular and there are plans to open a second location.
This establishment receives two thumbs-up from the frequent Dudley family diners. Osama Amli says he reads all reviews because he wants to know what his customers think he needs to tweak. Stop by the restaurant Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. or Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. You also may place a phone order at 540.904.6606. Do not be surprised if you become a frequent diner as well.