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Second time's the charm for Taza 21 owner

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Frank Abraham has been waiting a long time to bring his Syrian specialty, the Shawarma sandwich, to Pittsburgh. But the right opportunity has proved elusive, until recently.

"I came to this city, like, 22 years ago," Abraham says. "The first experience starting a restaurant was unfortunately unsuccessful because of the location. I was new in this country and didn't realize which location was good. I chose the wrong one. I've been waiting almost 20 years to get the right location, which is this one right here."

Murray Avenue's bustling, pedestrian-friendly character was the perfect fit for Taza 21, which specializes in light, healthy Middle Eastern fast food.

"It's the best location -- where you get a lot of foot traffic," Abraham says. "If you come anytime during the day, after midnight, you always see motion and people going back and forth. In my opinion, it's the places that are open 24 hours -- Giant Eagle, Eat'n Park, Rite Aid. The whole area is alive all day long, and at night."

The gregarious, mustachioed Abraham is always behind the counter, periodically turning around to the open kitchen to slice lamb off a rotating skewer. He gets some help from his wife, Silva, when she's finished with her tailoring and alteration business.

"My specialty is shawarma," he says. "This is the first place in town that does it the right way, on skewers. A lot of people confuse shawarma and gyros. It's like a 180 degrees' difference.

"We slice lamb leg, marinate it the day before, put in some special spices and other stuff, the next day we put it on a skewer. ... The next day we fire-roast it, and we shave it and make a sandwich. Same thing with chicken."

The Shawarma ($7) can feature juicy strips of lamb or chicken, rolled tightly in a warm, pressed wheat pita with parsley, onion, tomato, pickles and tahini sauce.

Another favorite is Sleek ($6), featuring fresh green kale, black-eyed peas, cracked bulgur wheat and onions, sauteed in olive oil, wrapped up with tomato and pickles.

An unusual specialty is Taza 21's Rolled Pizzas ($7), like the Sojouk, which features pizza sauce, Middle Eastern beef sausage, black olives, mushrooms and shredded cheese -- melted, wrapped and toasted.

"Taza" means "fresh" in Arabic. The cafe is closed between 2 and 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, to accommodate an Arabic class Abraham teaches at Chatham University. This kind of multitasking is nothing new to Abraham, though.

"Originally, I'm a chemistry teacher, at Damascus University back home," he says. "The restaurant business, I love it as a hobby. I had one back home in Syria, I used to teach and run the business."

Additional Information:

Taza 21

Location: 1827 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-11 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, and 12:30-8:30 p.m. Sundays. All major credit cards accepted.

Details: 412-904-2764

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