Houston Mediterranean Restaurant Receives Unexpected National Recognition
Consumer review website Yelp issued its annual Top 100 Places To Eat list this morning, and only one Houston restaurant is on it: Craft Pita at 1920 Fountain View. Owner Rafael Nasr opened the eatery last August and the accolades just keep coming. Out of 137 consumer rankings, it has a solid, five-star rating. On the Yelp Top 100 list, it placed at number 22.
Nasr had no idea that Craft Pita was going to be on Yelp’s list. In fact, he discovered that it was when we requested an interview about the honor. He says he believes three core principles allowed Craft Pita to earn the recognition: be the only Mediterranean restaurant in Houston that focuses on using local ingredients as well as using select quality ingredients from around the world; have a brighter, more inviting atmosphere than most Mediterranean restaurants and focus on “A+, guest-oriented service.”
“You can serve amazing food, and people will remember it, but I don’t think people are going to go out of their way to write reviews unless you really make it a memorable experience,” he said. “That starts with a friendly and inviting staff.”
Nasr is a native Houstonian and St. Thomas High School graduate of Lebanese descent. While studying entrepreneurial management at Texas Christian University, he opened a food truck at age 20. Later, he worked for three-and-a-half years with Pappas Restaurants and logged a few additional years with other establishments before opening Craft Pita.
Olive oil comes from a family orchard in Lebanon, and olives and salt are imported from that country as well. However, Nasr also uses humanely raised meats and other ingredients from closer to home. The Craft Pita website lists the suppliers of various foods, and there are plenty of names that are likely familiar to Houstonians. Just to name a few, pita bread is sourced from Phoenicia Specialty Foods, lettuce from Sustainable Harvesters and Akaushi beef from Heartbrand Beef.
“My ideology comes from spending summers in Lebanon with my grandma,” said Nasr. “We’d grow our own produce, raise our animals or get one from someone who did, and get our bread from the local baker. That’s just the way things worked,” he said. “It’s funny how things have come full circle. Mediterranean food is so simple that when you use locally sourced products, the flavors really stand out. I noticed no one was really doing this in the Houston market.”
Yelpers aren’t the only ones who enjoy Craft Pita. It’s received some critical acclaim as well. In October, Houstonia’s food editor Timothy Malcolm wrote, “In every way, it exceeds expectations as a lunch or quick dinner spot.” He cited the excellent service and recommended the mana’eesh, a flatbread topped with either za’atar or cheese, the falafel and the baklava ice cream.
That aside, it seems Craft Pita’s opening has been fairly low key. “I think it might be because we’re so well-branded that people tend to walk in and ask if we’re a corporate franchise,” said Nasr. “We’re not. We’re totally a family-owned and operated business.” Nasr and his mom are usually on-site and his sister, Sofia, handles marketing and communications.
The Yelp list is heavily weighted towards mom-and-pop shops. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the list reads like a United Nations of Cuisine.
Yelp describes its methodology as follows:
“To determine Yelp’s Top Places to Eat in 2020, Yelp’s data science team pulled the top restaurants by ratings and number of reviews in 2019 across the U.S., with representation based on each place’s share of top-rated restaurants nationally, then curated the list with the expertise of our Community Managers around the country to finalize the rankings.”
This year, the top spot is held by a San Diego food truck called Shawarma Guys. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, owner Bryan Zeto was who raised in an Iraqi Chaldean neighborhood in Detroit — and considering the current socio-political climate, it’s a poignant reminder that talented people truly come from everywhere.
It also means that the definition of the “best restaurant” is highly subjective and doesn’t necessarily depend on having a fancy space, high prices or a “name” chef in the kitchen.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.