SIOUX FALLS, S.D., Oct. 24, 2015 – For Sanaa Abourezk, the road to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a circuitous one. Having been born in war-torn Syria, her family knew the value of education.
So after she completed high school, they sent her to California, where she earned a master’s degree in food nutrition at Cal Poly-Pomona.
Her life afterwards included a stint in Washington D.C., attending a Cordon Bleu course in Paris, authoring several cookbooks and marrying former Sen. James Abourezk from South Dakota.
But Sanaa’s real passion was cooking healthy Mediterranean food, much of which is vegan and/or gluten free.
“There were no vegetarian places in town,” she says.
But would her idea work in meat-and-potatoes country like Sioux Falls? Well-meaning friends were direct, letting her know that she was “out of her mind” to try such a restaurant here. After all, people weren’t used to the sort of flavors she was offering: tahini, coriander, Aleppo pepper and tamarind. Say what?
If there was one thing that Sanaa had learned throughout her life, it was not to be put off by a challenge. So in 2004 she took the plunge and opened her restaurant (simply called Sanaa) in a small retail space located in a fairly undeveloped area in the city, away from the prime restaurant area of Phillips Avenue.
Calling her food “affordable, gourmet Mediterranean,” she broke even her first year and has grown each year since. Making everything from scratch, her mostly-vegetarian cuisine is 90% gluten free but packed with flavors. This, it seems, is what many in Sioux Falls had been craving but never knew it.
The dishes are served buffet style, which, Sanaa points out, “encourages people to try different foods.” And indeed they do. They line up to fill their plates with Shish Tawook made with chicken breast cooked in red sauce with cumin, mustard, garlic and sesame seed paste served on basmati rice pilaf and choice of salad.
Or they may choose a Fatayer (think Mediterranean calzone) filled with ground beef cooked in pomegranate molasses and chili sauce. Even desserts are prepared from her own special recipes, such as chocolate baklava or gluten-free date bar.
Part of her success, however, is Sanaa herself whose warm personality, attention to detail and customer service have endeared her to this community. “My customers are like my family…they bring me flowers, give me a hug and say prayers for my family back home,” she says.
While lunch includes a set menu, dinner is different every time, prepared with many of the recipes she has included in her books.
“I have my dream job,” she adds with a smile, having created something special in Sioux Falls that most thought was impossible. Still the future looks bright for Sanaa, who is now thinking about franchising.
Sanaa’s is open during limited hours:
Monday-Thursday: 10:30 am- 3 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.
Location: 401 E. 8th Street #100 Sioux Falls, SD 57103