This Middle Eastern restaurant chain is expanding in the US — here’s what it’s like to eat there

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Creamy hummus, aromatic rice, cool mint yogurt … what’s not to like?
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Hollis Johnson

A slice of Lebanon has come stateside, and it seems as though it’s here for the long run.

Semsom, a Lebanese fast-casual chain with about a dozen locations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, is planning to open two more locations in New York City, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Lebanese entrepreneur Christine Sfeir – who in 1998 opened Lebanon’s first Dunkin Donuts franchise at age 22 and has grown it to a 30-store operation – started Semsom in 2008.

By 2011, the first franchise opened in Saudi Arabia, and Semsom quickly became the fastest-growing company in Lebanon.

With an ambitious expansion goal by 2020, Semsom is poised to make waves in the fast-casual marketplace.

I decided to see for myself if Semsom has what it takes to tackle America’s toughest restaurant market: New York City.


Semsom’s first US location — two more are due this spring — is a colorful spot on the corner of Astor Place and Broadway. It opened in May 2015, and has been busy ever since.

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Hollis Johnson

Source: Wall Street Journal


I walked in around prime lunchtime, and it was pretty packed — but the line seemed to be moving quickly.

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Hollis Johnson

The space is small, but well organized with plenty of seating. The decor is bright and clean, with lots of purple and blue touches.

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Hollis Johnson

You can get a wrap or a bowl with either turmeric rice or romaine lettuce as a base. Next, choose your protein.

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Hollis Johnson

The concept is very similar to the fast casual approach made by popular by Chipotle: choose a type of meal, choose a base and a protein, and choose your toppings. Of course, there are plenty of vegetarian options, like cauliflower or pumpkin patties. Menu options change seasonally.

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Hollis Johnson

The toppings are standard Lebanese fare, pairing well with pretty much anything on the menu. And if you’re a veggie fan, you’re in luck: You can order as much as you want.

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Hollis Johnson

The smells coming from the food are amazing, and you can see it all prepared from the line.

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Hollis Johnson

Don’t forget to grab a fresh drink: With lemonade options including mint, rose, and mulberry, you can’t go wrong. And each is $3 — not bad.

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Hollis Johnson

Their hummus is made fresh daily — this sounds promising.

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Hollis Johnson

There’s a lounge area as well as standard table seating, perfect for relaxing after class or work.

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Hollis Johnson

For my drinks, I decided to try the sparkling mulberry lemonade, and the rose lemonade. The rose variation is incredibly fragrant, herbal, and sweet — almost cloyingly so. But the sparkling mulberry lemonade is absolutely perfect. It’s sweet, but not too much, and the mulberries add a tangy fruity flavor that’s perfect for the fall.

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Hollis Johnson

First up: a bowl of savory beef on a bed of turmeric rice, with lettuce and cucumbers — a simple choice to test the flavors of the basics. The portion is big, especially considering the price: $10.75 for the beef bowl, and $9.75 for a beef wrap.

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Hollis Johnson

The beef is cooked perfectly tender, but it could use a little more seasoning in my opinion. It’s not bland, but rather ordinary. The rice, however, is utterly divine. Light, fluffy, and fragrant, it’s the perfect base.

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Hollis Johnson

Next, I dig into my baked kafta meatball bowl. The smell alone is mouthwatering. The kafta (or kefta) meatballs are rich and dense with healthy doses of cumin and paprika, drenched in a perfect sauce that somehow manages to make the turmeric rice taste even better.

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Hollis Johnson

On the side, a heaping dollop of creamy hummus, minted yogurt, plump cherry tomatoes, and a sweet and sour eggplant relish of sorts all on top of a few tufts of romaine lettuce. Despite being only a small side addition to the meatballs, it’s the best salad I think I’ve ever had.

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Hollis Johnson

The meatballs are drizzled in classic tahini sauce — a spicy option is also available if you’re game, as well as Sriracha and other sauces.

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Hollis Johnson

And for dessert, there’s traditional Lebanese manoosh — a dough similar to a wrap — folded with Nutella, or with honey and labne, a strained yogurt. They also use it for breakfast wraps offered in the morning hours.

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Hollis Johnson

I chose the labne and honey because I have no idea what labne tastes like, and I was not disappointed. The slight bitterness of the thick strained yogurt is the perfect counterpoint to the light sweetness of honey wrapped into the manoosh. It’s a simple treat, for sure, and worth the $5 since it comes with two wraps.

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Hollis Johnson

The meal is freshly made and satisfying — fans of any Mediterranean cuisine should flock to Semsom. The price point is comparable to Chipotle and other large fast–casual chains, with meals running around $10.

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Hollis Johnson

So far, Semsom has proved wildly popular. With entrepreneur Sfeir at the helm, Semsom may very well explode onto the scene in the US, filling the spot for Middle Eastern fast–casual cuisine.

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Hollis Johnson