Pat's View: Hussein changed the way I feel about food
By Patrick Robinson
When I met Hussein Khazaal I was immediately struck by his smile. It was knowing, but innocent, born of experience but as fresh as a flower. Every time I met him after that he had that rare gift of renewing it in the moment he shared it with me.
I was doing a story about his new restaurant, The Phoenecia which was in the middle of the block on California Ave in West Seattle in 1975. The restaurant had a skylight with a stained glass applique made of plastic over it but the effect still worked. This was something different in Seattle’s birthplace.
Even then we had burgers and pizza. Fried chicken and diner food. If you are old enough you’ll remember Herfy’s, and Joe Banana’s, Chicken Delight, and Nobby’s.
But the Phoenecia was middle eastern food. It basically didn’t exist in Seattle before he arrived. Hussein told me that he had owned or worked in dozens of restaurants by then from Beirut to Times Square in New York.. but it was by chance he chose to stay in Seattle.
He introduced me to Tabouleh, made of finely chopped parsley, with tomatoes, mint, onion, soaked uncooked bulgur, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and sweet pepper. I was astounded as I sat in the booth, flooded with the discovery of such amazing food.
I grew to really admire Hussein and he loved West Seattle.
One evening as I was waiting for my girlfriend to get to the junction on the bus I figured I would surprise her with dinner so I went to the Phoenecia and asked him for help. The look in his eye was unforgettable as he twinkled and smiled. That was the first of many times I’d hear him say what was his signature phrase.
“You wait. I will make you something very special.”
He disappeared into the kitchen and what seemed like less than 10 minutes later he emerged, beaming, his hands full of aluminum foil packets. “She will like this,” he said confidently. He would not let me pay him.
When I opened the packets back at the office it was full of chunks of perfectly cooked filet mignon, saffron rice, pita bread, hummus, olives and some baklava. I was in love, and it’s entirely possible it even made my girlfriend (now my wife) like me a little better.
Years later, I was learning web design and came to see Hussein who by then had been downtown at the Hansen Baking Company for some years and then had come back to West Seattle down on Alki Beach. I came to show him a design I had done for him and he was really pleased with it (I got an A in the class!) and he said, “You wait. I will make you something very special.” I smiled.
When he came back I was apprehensive since he carried on a plate a very thick, bright red piece of fish. I don’t really eat Sushi. It’s just not on my menu. But he told me to try it. it was seared Ahi Tuna. I have never had anything as good since. It confirmed my belief that he was a genius in the kitchen.
More than anything, Hussein Khazaal understood the power of food to change your world. He introduced me to falafel, baklava, Turkish coffee, Garlic green beans, saffron Chicken and more.
He was constantly trying to bring new ideas to his customers, and was completely dedicated to making them feel well cared for, and treated as if each of them were “very special” too.
I’m extremely pleased to say that today his daughters Nadia and Sonya carry on his traditions. They innovate, work incredibly hard and embody the warmth and love Hussein represented to so many.