Twenty-three years ago Samia El Hakim left Lebanon to visit America.
Having left amid the Lebanese War, which started in the mid-70s, El Hakim could not return home.
Instead she, her husband and her kids, who were about two at the time, moved to a Denver apartment complex where their neighbors, above and below, became fortunate enough to live near the savvy, generous Lebanese cook.
El Hakim would invite the neighbors over to eat two or three times a week because the family didn’t “like to dine lonely,” and she considers cooking to be her hobby and loves to share her creations with everyone.
Because she did not yet know English, she would use non-verbal communication to call them over, she says, making the motion of feeding herself with her hands.
And whenever the neighbor’s kids, who were about the same age as her daughters, would finish eating, they would grab their stomachs and say, “Yum yum,” El Hakim says, laughing.
This pastime would, some years later, serve as an inspiration for El Hakim’s Fort Collins family restaurant.
Dining with the family
If you go to Yum Yum Lebanese Restaurant & Bar on Elizabeth Street, do us a favor: don’t order a gyro.
The gyro — fresh lamb and beef, layered with vegetables and wrapped in pita bread — is what most people would recommend a hungry eater order at the mom-and-pop shop. But there is more than just gyros on the menu, if a person is willing to move past fear and uncertainty and attempt to pronounce even half of the other dishes.
Often times Samia and Philippe El Hakim stand side-by-side grilling chicken, beef, tomatoes and onions over a steaming grill.
They are the only two allowed to cook in the restaurant, which they opened 19 years ago in February.
Before our complex, yet simple meals were done, the couple meticulously dished hummus ($5.29) — a fine mixture of garbanzo beans, sesame tahini sauce, garlic and lemon juice — onto a small, foam plate. A paper cone brimming with still-hot and fresh fries later complemented the smooth concoction.
And then, the aroma of freshly cooked meats and spices made their way to the quaint seating area, manifesting in several plates piled high with sides of rice and fatouch, a fresh salad made from cucumber, parsley, green pepper, tomatoes, onion and lemon juice.
Heeding a recommendation by the couple’s daughter, Eloe, Madeline ordered the Sheesh T’Aouk ($10.45), a mixture of grilled chicken with tomatoes, onions and special spices, served with rice and the fatouch. After eating it all individually with a fork for some time, Denise El Hakim, the oldest daughter, came over and asked if she should explain how to eat the dish Lebanese style.
Following Madeline’s approval, Denise tore a pita in half and scooped everything on the plate into the soft, flat bread — Madeline had to try a tiny bit of the pita, ignoring her gluten intolerance — topping it off with a savory, yogurt sauce.
Mike ordered the Kafta plate ($10.45), which was adorned with several cuts of beef resembling sausage, each sweet and savory in its own right. It’s best eaten rolled into pieces of pita and topped with a mixture of hummus, fatouch and a hot sauce Samia pushed our way.
And as Eloe and the couple sat with us both, sharing stories about the culture of Lebanon and convincing us both to visit there one day, we felt right at home, as if we were eating with family.
Staff photographer Michael Kalush and News Managing Editor Madeline Novey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.