Suzy Phillips grew up in Rabieh during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). The conflict eventually led her family to flee their home country and relocate to Stuart, Fla. Years later, Phillips headed north to Asheville and eventually turned to cooking, despite no formal training.
“In [my] country, everybody cooks — it runs through our veins,” she says, seated on the patio of her restaurant, Gypsy Queen Cuisine, on Patton Avenue. The eatery began as a food truck in 2011, before Phillips opened her brick-and-mortar in 2015.
“I got a really small business loan from the [Small Business Administration], and after all was said and done, I opened on Patton Avenue with $37 in the bank,” she says. “That was eight years ago, and here we are.”
In this month’s installment of “Fresh Dish,” Xpress speaks with Phillips about beet shawarma, eggplant and how Asheville needs a heartier ethnic cuisine scene.
Xpress: What is a current dish on your menu that you feel is not getting the attention that it deserves?
We looked at the sales, and the dish with the least is the beet shawarma. Not a lot of people like beets. I think people associate beets with dirt because they taste like earth.
But the way we do them is like a shawarma, which is a meat from a spit that is thinly sliced. For our lamb and beef shawarma, we use Lebanese seven spice, which we make in-house. We also put that on the beet shawarma. It’s almost like a pastrami.
The beets are sliced thin, and they’re boiled. And then they’re tossed in that spice. And then they are rolled up with a traditional toum, a vegan garlic aioli that we Lebanese call our “almighty sauce.” We serve it with mint, cabbage salad, tomatoes, pickles — it’s delicious.
Outside of your own, what’s a local dish that you’ve tried in the last month that completely blew you away, and why?
A few weeks ago, my friend and I went to Cucina 24. I hadn’t been there in a while, but it’s one of my favorite restaurants in town. Brian Canipelli is one of my favorite chefs. He travels a lot to Italy and gets really inspired when he’s there, so he’s constantly bringing back dishes and putting his spin on them. He uses great ingredients and infuses his food with his passion — and you can taste that.
I had this pasta dish that’s called tajarin al tartufo — with roasted chicken jus, butter, parmesan, black pepper and lots of shaved truffles. Sometimes I’m a little too overwhelmed with truffles, but this dish brought tears to my eyes. It was that good.
What’s a good seasonal ingredient underrepresented in home cooking?
Purple eggplant. I feel like it’s not being represented right, or people are scared of it. It’s just simply not in a lot of American cuisine.
But in Lebanon, in the Mediterranean or even in Southeast Asia, eggplant is a star, and it’s used in so many different ways. What I don’t like about eggplant here is it’s harvested when it’s so big that the eggplant is bitter and full of seeds. The smaller the things are, the more flavor and tenderness they have.
What I do with eggplant, besides making a dip out of it, is roast it and make a baba ghanoush. We also have a dish called sheik al mahshi, which means “the sheik of stuffing.” Eggplant is peeled and a little fried, stuffed with ground lamb, pine nuts and onions … and then covered with a lamb bone broth with tomatoes and baked. When it comes out, it’s topped with a dollop of yogurt.
You can also slice eggplant thin and eat it like chips, or you can core it and stuff it with rice and meat … or just rice. There’s so many ways you can have eggplant. But I think your average American home cook has only seen it in eggplant Parmesan.
What cuisine would you like to see represented more in Asheville?
We don’t have enough good Chinese, Ethiopian and Portuguese [restaurants]. There’s a few Thai … and one good Vietnamese place. Overall, I think we need more ethnic cuisine.
Sometimes people say they want something, but then it’s a little bit out of their way to go support it. I think Ashevilleans need to step up when it comes to supporting places that are not in their 1-mile radius of driving.
What’s a favorite food destination within driving distance of Asheville that readers should add to their list?
Atlanta. I used to live there. I don’t miss anything but the food scene.
There is this great market called Decatur Farmers Market. It’s huge. When you walk in, you think you’re in a different world. Everybody that works there is from a different country.
They wear name tags that tell where they’re from. They sell things you can’t find in regular grocery stores — we’re talking from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Southeast Asia, Australia, Lebanon, the Middle East, Morocco … everywhere. Whatever ingredient you want or meat you’re looking for, you can find it there. And there are cheeses from all over the world.
There’s also this road called Buford Highway. That is the mecca of foreign food, foreign restaurants and markets. You can find the best Vietnamese, the best Indian, the best Mexican, the best Ethiopian — you name it.
Who would you like to see us dish with next month?
Aileen Tan of Wild Ginger. I love Vietnamese, and she does it so well. It’s so good and so fresh. And she’s a hustler … and a badass … and an amazing woman.