The meal begins not unlike others that I've enjoyed recently, with a complimentary tasting prepared by the kitchen to get things rolling. Presented on a faux slate slab are four bite-size versions of the menu's top sellers. As I work my way down the line, I become increasingly mindful of the absurdity of the situation. I am, after all, standing in the rear of a convenience store in Brookpark.
"This is a tasting tour to introduce you to some of the flavors we incorporate into our food," says Micho Aboukhaled, who along with his parents runs the Express Deli. "I don't want you getting a sandwich that you may not like. If you like it, beautiful. If not, that's okay."
Aboukhaled assures me that the gesture is not reserved for food critics, bloggers or other "influencers," but rather it is one that's offered to every first-timer who visits the shop and has a few spare moments to be indoctrinated in the unconventional customs of the shop. Yes, Express Deli is a convenience store in the final approach path of planes landing at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, but it is also a 20-year-old family business that strives to make the lives of its customers just a little bit better.
"We are a literal mom-and-pop shop cranking out our unique take on deli food," says Aboukhaled. "Some of our customers have been coming daily for a decade or longer."
Some of those regular customers come via train from Pittsburgh aboard the Cleveland Line of the Norfolk Southern railway, which overnights a short walk from the deli's front door. Others come from much farther afield, making a point to visit the shop soon after deboarding their planes at the nearby airport.
Pierre Aboukhaled, an electrical engineer in a previous life, purchased the deli two decades ago. It's been chugging along nicely, he'll tell you — "We have been so blessed" — but over the past couple years the business has begun to pick up steam. That's thanks in no small part to the return of his industrious son Micho, a graduate of Weatherhead's MBA program who had been living and working in Abu Dhabi. Since returning to the family business, the son has made steady if minor improvements like painting the interior, clearing out needless fixtures, and installing what might be the only convenience store dining room in the region.
From the beginning, the deli has always sold sandwiches, but the family added some subtle Middle Eastern touches that integrate their Lebanese heritage. The house dressing that appears on many sandwiches contains the herbs and essence of za'atar; the Reuben is slicked with a flavorful garlic sauce that has roots in Lebanese toum; and in place of standard-issue rye bread, the most popular preparation is a tight wrap in thin, bakery-fresh pita.
By a mile, the best seller at Express is that Reuben wrap ($8.50). Nearly a half-pound of warm, thinly sliced corned beef is layered into a pita with sauerkraut, garlicky mayo and Thousand Islands dressing. It's twisted up burrito style, wrapped in paper and foil, and sliced in two. In this tidy configuration, all of the ingredients end up in one's mouth as opposed to a plate or lap. That herby house dressing helps boost the flavor of a turkey wrap ($6.50), a meaty and satisfying lunch bundle. Wide wheels of zesty pepperoni and provolone boost that turkey even more in the case of the turkey-pepperoni wrap ($8.95), another top seller.
Though most sandwiches come on pita bread, all can be prepared on rye, white, wheat or hoagie buns.
Tack on an order of the Reuben mac and cheese, a swiss and cheddar based concoction augmented with corned beef, kraut and Thousand Islands. Mom also makes hummus from scratch, soaking and boiling the chickpeas before blending them to creamy, nutty perfection.
More than anything, the Aboukhaleds understand the deli's place in the community. As much as they might like to drastically change things, the store still sells cigarettes and lottery tickets, while at the same time introducing more local food products like Guardian Cold Brew coffee. The owners get that they aren't serving gourmet food (multiple microwaves often ding in unison), but it is quick, affordable and delicious, as witnessed by the long lunch lines and folks sitting down come dinner time.
But it doesn't take a new visitor long to see what really keeps people coming back. It is plainly the relationships, forged over months, years and, in many cases, decades. The food is just an added benefit.
"At any establishment, I don't think food is ever the sole reason people visit the place," says Micho. "You have to have good food and good service, and then there's the rest."